Is Race Discrimination Just History?

August 3, 2009

The recent Supreme Court decision in the New Haven firefighters case has launched a spate of op-eds on affirmative action. Did the Court drive a stake in its heart? Does it really matter if it did?

Shelby Steele, a senior fellow at the right-leaning Hoover Institution, thinks no. The real problem today, he says, is “black underdevelopment,” not discrimination. True, some blacks still suffer from deprivations rooted in past discrimination, but “we also live in a society where race is no longer a significant barrier to advancement.”

Last month, the Center for American Progress co-hosted a panel discussion on black male unemployment. You’d think panelists were talking about a different world.

I was most struck by findings presented by Algernon Austin, Director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy. Happily, they’re summarized in an article that asks, “Why Is the Black Male Employment Rate So Low?”

The article presents research that contradicts common answers to this question. No:

  • It’s not that black men lack a work ethic because they wouldn’t be counted as unemployed unless they were actively seeking work.
  • It’s not that they reject jobs they think pay just “chump change” because, on average, the lowest wage they’ll accept is lower than the the average that’s acceptable to whites.
  • It’s not that they lack the skills employers are seeking because the greatest black-white employment gap is among high school dropouts, i.e., those competing for low-skill jobs.
  • It’s not that employers prefer the “soft skills” and cultural sophistication that people from well-off families tend to have because black teens from families earning $75,000 to $100,000 a year have a lower employment rate than poor white teens.
  • It’s not that black males don’t live where the jobs are because the difference in employment rates between black males in cities and suburbs is much greater than the difference for white males.

So, the argument goes, if it’s not any of these things, what’s left but race discrimination? It may, as Austin says, be subtle–even unconscious. But it’s no less a barrier to equal opportunity than the old in-your-face kind.

And if that’s so, then the “ultimate measure” of blacks equality with whites has to be something more than “parity in skills and individual competency,” Steele notwithstanding.

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How Are Black Kids Faring In DC Public Schools?

July 17, 2009

As I was wrapping up my posting on the race gap in education, the U.S. Department of Education issued a report on the issue. Using the same scores I used from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, it breaks down black/white reading and math scores by state.

Comparative scores for the District of Columbia are provided only for 4th graders. For these, there’s one bright spot. The 4th grade math score gap narrowed somewhat between 1992 and 2007.

But the 2007 figures are dismal–both for all D.C. public elementary school students and for the gaps between blacks and whites.

  • The District’s overall 4th grade math score was the lowest in the country–14 points lower than the next lowest states and 29 points lower than the all-U.S. score.
  • The overall reading score was also the lowest in the country–10 points lower than the next lowest state and 23 points lower than the all-U.S. score.
  • The gap between black and white math scores was the highest in the country–19 points higher than the next highest state and more than double the all-U.S. score gap.
  • The gap between black and white reading scores was also the highest in the country–29 points higher than the next highest state and nearly two and a half times the all-U.S. gap.

A couple of days ago, the District of Columbia Public Schools announced that scores on its own 2009 performance assessments were higher than 2008 scores, continuing an upward trend from 2007. This still leaves more than half its elementary school students below the proficiency standard for their grade level.

DCPS also reports narrower black/white race gaps in both math and reading, but not how wide the gaps are now. Given the size of the gaps in the NAEP scores and the reported progress figures, it’s still got a long way to go.


What’s the Future for Black Kids In Our Public Schools?

July 15, 2009

President Obama has come out with a “cradle to career” plan to overhaul our public education system. It’s supposed to prepare all Americans to enroll in at least one year of college or job training after high school.

To get there, the President proposes some investments in early childhood education and more generous financial assistance for college students. But the core of the plan is fairly conventional–raise standards, reward good teachers and fire bad ones, support the expansion of charter schools, etc.

No doubt something must be done. Our schools aren’t preparing enough young people for the emerging economy–jobs that call for specialized knowledge, high-level technical skills and the capacity to keep learning over time.

Like the current employment situation, this is not an equal opportunity problem. The large race gaps in employment and earnings are mirrored in measures of student performance. The most telling, I think, are the National Assessment of Education Progress scores because they reflect consistent, impartial assessments across the country and over time.

NAEP scores for black students have improved since the early 70’s. But scores for white students have improved too. So the gaps are still there, though not as wide. And we’re not seeing steady progress. All the gaps were narrower in the late 80’s, except for 4th grade reading scores.

What concerns me more than the gaps are what the scores themselves mean. According to the Children’s Defense Fund’s analysis:

  • 86% of black public school 4th graders can’t read at grade level, and 85% can’t do grade-level math.
  • By the 12th grade, 2% more black students can read at grade level, but 94% can’t do grade-level math.

By then, says the Economic Policy Institute, a quarter of black students have dropped out. So we’ve got to assume that competency in these most basic skills is even lower for the whole age group.

How will these students successfully complete at least a year of postsecondary education or high-level skills training? Some short-shot remedial work on the side can’t compensate for what they’re supposed to have mastered during twelve years in the classroom.

No Child Left Behind was supposed to address the race/ethnicity gap. It obviously hasn’t. And, frankly, I doubt that tinkering around with standards, incentives and penalties will. Because, as everyone admits (well, just about everyone), there’s only so much the schools can do.

My hunch is that we’ll need an approach that addresses the entwined legacies of race discrimination, poverty and education holistically and begins when children are born–or earlier. Many have mentioned the Harlem Children’s Project as a model.

Scaling this project would be a tall order. And it’s certainly better to go at the issues piecemeal than wait till we’ve got a program that gets at them all. But we do need to focus on the connections–and the sooner the better.


Middle Class Families At the Edge of the Cliff

July 2, 2009

Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine profiles a multi-generation black family to trace “the fall of the black middle class.” Their ladder up the economic scale was the auto industry, and it’s been pulled out from under them.

This is a story that’s being replicated throughout the Detroit area. But a new report from Demos tells us that it’s only the latest chapter in a longer, broader downslide for black and Latino middle-class families.

The downslide here isn’t in employment rates. It’s in economic security–a combination of factors that enable families to remain financially stable and recover from setbacks. These factors include education, housing costs, health insurance, household budget and assets.

Even before the recession, black and Latino middle-class families were less likely than others to be economically secure. And more of them were sliding toward potential poverty. Between 2000 and 2006, the percentage of black families that were economically secure fell from 26% to 16%. For Latino families, the drop was from 23% to 12%.

Demos singles out three principal factors in the declining stability of black and Latino middle-class families–loss of health insurance, rising housing costs and declining assets.

Yet the story here isn’t only about certain minority groups. For middle-class families overall, the percentage that were economically secure dropped from 29% to 24%. In other words, 76% of middle-class families were at the edge of a cliff when the recession set in.

Demos calls for policies that will strengthen the middle class as a whole–policies that address the housing and health care crises and help families build assets and reduce debt.

But we surely also need to strengthen the safety net. Because it’s quite clear that most middle-class families–not to mention poor families–don’t have the wherewithal to manage a job loss or any other further pressure on their resources.


Poverty and the Race Factor

June 17, 2009

Several recent reports call attention to something we all know but perhaps don’t talk about as much as we should. Poverty is not an equal opportunity condition.

No matter what measure you look at, racial minorities (except for Asian-Americans) rank well below whites. Blacks, along with Native Americans, generally fare worst. Here are a few of the many examples in the Applied Research Center’s new report on race and the recession:

  • In March 2009, the unemployment rate for blacks was 13.3%, as compared to 7.9% for whites. (Figures for May are 14.9% versus 8.6%.)
  • In all but 4 of the past 15 years, the rate of blacks who were under-employed, i.e., employed part-time though they wanted full-time work or unemployed but no longer looking for a job, was twice the rate for whites.
  • The recent median weekly earning for blacks was $577, as compared to $785 for whites.

It’s conventional to attribute these gaps to ongoing race discrimination. And that’s certainly a factor. For example:

  • The ARC report shows that blacks without a high school diploma earn 76 cents for every dollar whites without the diploma earn. For those with an advanced degree, the gap is just 1 cent less.
  • A study out of Princeton found that blacks without a criminal record were less likely to be called back after a job interview than whites with a criminal record.

But the root causes of the inequities are more complex than persistent race discrimination. A new book by sociologist William Julius Wilson signals his view in its title–More Than Just Race.

Wilson argues that inner-city blacks are poor due a combination of systemic causes–principally the legacy of past discrimination and changes in our economy that have significantly reduced living-wage job opportunities for people without more than a high school education.

An issue brief by the Center for Economic and Policy research adds more factors:

  • The share of manufacturing jobs held by blacks has steadily declined–from 23.9% in 1979 to 9.8% in 2007.
  • For this and perhaps other reasons, their union membership has dropped from 31.7% in 1983 to 15.7% in 2007.

Add to all these the fact that black males are significantly more likely than white males to be incarcerated–and thus to have a major strike against them when they later try to get a job. A new report by the Center for American progress puts the black/white incarceration ratio at 7/1.

A pre-recession report by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute documented the large and growing race gap here in Washington, D.C.

  • In 2006, blacks were 5 times more likely to be unemployed than whites–the greatest disparity since the mid-1980’s.
  • Only 51% of blacks were working, as compared to 62% in 1988.
  • The median income for black households was slightly lower than in 1980, while the median income for white households had increased 68%.

Lack of postsecondary education was–and still is–a primary factor here. According to a 2008 report co-authored by DCFPI and DC Appleseed:

  • In 2003, only 32% of D.C. minority residents had a postsecondary degree, as compared to 93% of non-Hispanic whites.
  • Only 70% of minority adults had  even a high school diploma, as compared to 1% of non-Hispanic whites.

Our local economy is somewhat unusual. But I think it’s in some ways a forecast of things to come–a shift to what DCFPI characterizes as a “high-skills, knowledge-based economy,” combined with a growing demand for at least some postsecondary education and/or specialized skills training.

But will black youth come out of our public schools with the basic competencies they’ll need to cope with postsecondary-level coursework or other training that will qualify them for good jobs, with opportunities to advance?

For many, the prospects don’t look good. I’ll return to this in another posting.