Skip to main content

Opinion A half-century of progress and black America’s still burning

You can't help thinking that the United States has gone back to 1965. You see it in the fury over racially charged killings by police in Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island and Charleston – the latter of which even involved that staple of sixties old-boy racism, the "broken tail light" police stop.

You see it in the mass protests provoked by that fury and the riots that often ride the coattails of those protests, making Baltimore and Ferguson resemble Watts and Detroit. And in the barren, boarded-up streets of those cities, so shocking in an era when "the ghetto" has all but disappeared from larger cities. And in the broken, isolated, impoverished lives of the young men taking part in those protests and riots. Has America regressed?

On one hand, it hasn't: The past decade has seen the United States move sharply away from that divided era. Crime rates have plunged to record lows and crime rates among black Americans – including violent crimes – have fallen even more sharply, to well below where they were when measures began in 1964. Many other social measures – teen pregnancies and school-dropout rates, especially among African-American youth – have dropped to all-time lows.

Story continues below advertisement

Attitudes have changed even more. Racial intolerance, by almost any measure, is more rare in the United States today than it has ever been; among Americans in their 20s today, acceptance of interracial marriage and dating (a key measure of tolerance) is now nearly 100 per cent. American white millennials are growing up without measurably racist attitudes.

But if the attitudes are becoming a thing of the past, the outcomes aren't. Black Americans are, on average, even further apart from white Americans in income (where black people earn $27,000 [U.S.] a year less than white people, up from $19,000 in the sixties) and wealth (an $85,000 gap, up from $75,000 in the eighties). African-Americans face double the unemployment rate of white people, poverty rates are higher and the incarceration rate is shockingly high, cutting holes in half of black families (and having almost nothing to do with the fall in crime rates).

"When it comes to race relations, America is better than it's ever been," the Washington journalist Jamelle Bouie writes. "With that said, we shouldn't confuse optimism about race relations (or, again, how whites view blacks and other groups) with optimism about racial progress, or how groups fare in relation to each other. There, the news isn't just bad – it's bleak."

Why have the huge improvements in American racial attitudes and general social measures not brought about an improvement in racial equality? Why do police attack and discriminate against black Americans disproportionately – even when, as is the case in Baltimore, most of the police force, its chief, its mayor and its president are African-American?

This is the paradox of the United States today: A population of voters and leaders who have largely moved beyond racial discrimination continue to produce often grotesquely racist results. Why does the reality not change with the attitudes toward it?

The answer is found in the cities and towns where these explosions of violence and deprivation are taking place: Once an institution (a city, a police force, a school system, an economy) is set up to create a racial divide, it will continue to do so, regardless who's running it, unless there's a dramatic intervention.

Too many Americans don't see these institutions, but only their victims, who then get blamed for the outcomes: It has become popular again on the North American right to claim, in pseudo-scholarly language, that "that's just how they are" – that African-American culture, or families, must be to blame (even though culture and family structures are always consequences, not causes, of larger ills).

Story continues below advertisement

This view has been decisively disproven this month in a vast and expensive study by economists Raj Chetty, Lawrence Katz and their colleagues at Harvard University, in which thousands of randomly selected low-income (mainly black) families were given vouchers in the nineties to move out of deprived neighbourhoods (and thousands more stayed put as control groups).

The results, a generation later, found that poor, crime-addled families prone to intergenerational poverty and broken homes become, within a generation of leaving their context, prosperous, educated and marriage-prone families, with outcomes similar to those of average Americans.

The Obama administration has attempted the sort of big interventions (such as the ones of the sixties and nineties) that are needed turn around this trajectory of inequality. The post-2008 stimulus and the "Obamacare" medicare system have stopped the rise in inequality and poverty. But many large urban-policy and education programs have been blocked by a recalcitrant U.S. Congress. It might take flames from the cities, as it did 50 years ago, to provoke a change.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter