Bankole: A sober look at black life over 50 years

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News
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A new report highlights challenges for black Americans. Released by the Economic Policy Institute last week, “50 Years after the Kerner Commission” says: “With respect to homeownership, unemployment, and incarceration, America has failed to deliver any progress for African Americans over the last five decades. In these areas, their situation has either failed to improve relative to whites or has worsened.”

The report comes five decades after former President Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 Kerner Commission — created to study race riots of the 1960s including Detroit’s 1967 social unrest — concluded that America was moving toward two societies: one black, one white — separate and unequal.

The cold facts contained in the report are bound to trigger new debate about the place of blacks in this current dispensation.

In 2017 the black unemployment rate was 7.5 percent, up from 6.7 percent in 1968, and is still roughly twice the white unemployment rate. In 2015, the black homeownership rate was just over 40 percent, virtually unchanged since 1968, and trailing 30 points behind the white homeownership rate, which saw modest gains over the same period. And the share of African-Americans in prison or jail almost tripled between 1968 and 2016 — currently more than six times the white incarceration rate.

This is the kind of report that makes you cringe and forces you to question every sincere effort that has been made in the last 50 years to address the persistent racial inequality gap that continues to plague us. It’s yet another indication that blacks continue to wallow in economic and social misery.

W.E.B. Du Bois rightly observed that the “problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.”

“Black Americans have clearly put a tremendous amount of personal effort into improving their social and economic standing, but that effort only goes so far when you’re working within structures that were never intended to give equal outcomes,” said Valerie Wilson, one of the authors of the report.

On the question of family wealth, the report found that the typical black family had almost zero ($2,467) in 1968.

“Today, that figure is about six times larger ($17,409), but it is still not that far from zero when you consider that families typically draw on their wealth for larger expenses, such as meeting basic needs over the course of retirement, paying for their children’s college education, putting a down payment on a house, or coping with a job loss or medical crisis,” the report states. “Over the same period, the wealth of the typical white family almost tripled, from a much higher initial level. In 2016, the median African American family had only 10.2 percent of the wealth of the median white family ($17,409 versus $171,000).”

With regard to education, the report stated that African-Americans are much better educated now than they were in 1968, but still lag behind whites in overall educational attainment.

“More than 90 percent of younger African Americans (ages 25 to 29) have graduated from high school, compared with just over half in 1968 — which means they’ve nearly closed the gap with white high school graduation rates. They are also more than twice as likely to have a college degree as in 1968 but are still half as likely as young whites to have a college degree.”

The report also notes that black workers still make only 82.5 cents on every dollar earned by white workers, and are 2.5 times as likely to be in poverty as whites.

Detroit remains the largest poverty stricken area of any major city in the nation at 35.7 percent, but the report says the number of blacks living in poverty has declined in the last five decades.

Detroiter Brian Cartwright, who has worked in real estate development, sees the report as instructive for blacks in the city.

“African-Americans relied to our detriment on large automotive employers for decades. As over 250,000 jobs have permanently left Michigan since 2000, African-Americans have been disproportionately affected,” Cartwright said. “Lack of cultural and financial support for business and homeownership has stymied the development of wealth as measured by assets transferred between generations.”

He added, “For African-Americans in Detroit to own homes, gain upward economic mobility and remain free from incarceration, a cultural transformation is required. Money and substantial investments is required also, but a mind-set that supports the risk-taking and innovation of entrepreneurship is a leadership imperative.”

Leadership to address the challenges outlined in the report will have to come from all levels, especially from our government as President Lyndon Johnson made clear in a June 1965 commencement at Howard University.

“You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair,” Johnson said. “Thus, it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.”

That is our challenge.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” broadcast at noon weekdays on Superstation 910AM.

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