A few weeks ago, I saw a video on Facebook that tried to explain the impact of “systemic racism.” It compares the lives and family histories of two children, Kevin (white) and Jamal (black.) Kevin lives in well-to-neighborhood with good schools; Jamal lives in a poor neighborhood with bad schools. That, the video argues, is because, generations ago, Kevin’s grandparents bought a house with a cheap mortgage and went to college, whereas Jamal’s grandparents could not buy a house because of redlining, a practice which denied loans to residents of certain areas. In addition, Kevin’s grandparents went into “a handful of top universities,” while Jamal’s grandparents’ college opportunities were limited by segregation. The video also cites “implicit biases” which will make it harder for Jamal to get a job even if he goes to the same college and does just as well as Kevin. The video also remarks, tellingly, that the problem with “systemic racism” is that no single person is responsible for it, making it very hard to fix. It urges us all to become more aware of our implicit biases.
I have no doubt that in one way or another, racism, beginning with slavery, accounts for much of the aggregate difference in the lives of black and white Americans today. I am writing this post, however, because I am convinced that that view, while accurate, is too narrow. First, if one asks some different questions about Kevin, Jamal, and others like them, one finds that racism very clearly is not the only, or even the biggest, cause of economic distress in the United States today. Secondly, to argue that it is makes it much less likely, in my opinion, that the nation will address the most profound causes of inequality today. The equation of poverty and racial problems began in the 1960s and it has lasted, for different reasons, to this day. Both conservative whites and many liberal whites and blacks, it seems to me, prefer to see poverty as primarily a problem of black people. As it happens, it isn’t.
Focusing, like the video, on Jamal’s archetypal family and its neighbors, I decided to find out how many black families they might represent. Uncle Google sent me to a nice table breaking down household income by race—white, black and Hispanic. Unfortunately it dates from 2014 but I doubt that the picture has changed dramatically since then. Let’s assume that Jamal’s family has an income of $25,000 or less. That includes a lot of families well above the poverty line, but I think it defines, at the very least, a struggling family. There were, as it happens, about 5.5 million black households in that category. There were also 2.4 million Hispanic households in that category, making 7.9 million total black and Hispanic. There were 22.3 million white households in that category—about four times as many as black households, and about three times as many as black and Hispanic combined. If we change our threshold from under $25,000 to under $35,000, we get similar results. 32.2 million white households earn less than $35,000, compared to 8.1 million black ones and 4.6 million Hispanics.
Now the total numbers of 2014 households, the table shows, were 98.7 million white, 16.4 million black, and 16.2 million Hispanic. That means that there were six times as many white households as black, but only four times as many under $25,000 annual income or under $32,000 annual income, confirming that blacks as a group suffer economic disadvantage. But counting the total numbers,we find that there far more white people in these categories than others. (My household table has no figures for other ethnic groups such as Asians and American Indians.) And we decide elections by raw total numbers.
The video did not suggest to me that Jamal’s family was living in poverty, but I checked figures on families below the poverty line too. A very thorough table on poverty included data through 2017. It shows 39.7 million people in poverty in that year. 17 million of them were non-Hispanic whites, 9.8 million were black, and 10.8 million were Hispanic. Here the black and Hispanic total slightly exceeds the white one, indicating that the overrepresentation of these groups at the lowest income levels is much greater than their overrepresentation in the under $25,000 or under $35,000 per household groups. The same pattern emerges from census tables on single-parent, female-headed households and the number of them that live in poverty. The largest racial group of such families (poor or not), 18.4 million, is also white, but the black total is 15.3 million and the Hispanic total is 12.2 million. The percentages of those families living in poverty is 33.3% for the black families (5.1 million people), 19.9 for the white families (3.6 million people), and 34.3% for Hispanics (4.1 million people.) There are more poor white people in these families than there are blacks or Hispanics, but fewer than blacks and Hispanics combined.
What implications do these figures have?
We commonly see disparities between black and white wealth and income expressed in percentage terms, comparing the percentages of the two groups in poverty, or in terms of averages and medians for income and net worth. All such measurements show that as a group, black America is much worse off than white America. Often, median measurement are the only ones I seem to be able to find for important statistics. I know that median black net worth is way below white, and that the disparity increased as a result of the Great Recession, but so far, I can’t find the numbers of black and white and Hispanic households with zero net worth. (About 19 million households have net worth of $1000 or less, but I can’t find a racial breakdown.) I also couldn’t find out how many of the homeowners who were foreclosed during the Great Recession (variously given out as 7 or 10 million) were white, how many were black, and how many were Hispanic. And I really would like to know.
What we do see here is this. Racism has undoubtedly hurt the economic standing of black people and continues to do so. But (limiting the comparison for a moment to white and black), for every specific economic problem from which black people suffer—relatively low household income, poverty, female-headed households, and probably, recently foreclosed homes—more individual white people suffer from it than black ones. And this applies, remarkably, even to perhaps the most racially charged issue in our national life, the shooting of civilians by police. Of the 992 people shot and killed by police officers in 2018—nearly 3 a day—452 were white, 229 were black, and 154 were Hispanic. (107 were listed as unknown.) That too is a disproportionate number of black people, but a greater number of white people. So far this year the proportion of white victims (and the total number of victims) has dropped, but they remain the largest group. And while the black incarceration rate is about five times higher than the white one and nearly three times higher than the Hispanic one, the number of white and black inmates is nearly equal overall. Evidence suggests that one reason for the higher incarceration rates of blacks and Hispanics is that they have tended to receive longer sentences for the same crimes.
And why is all this important?
There are, it seems to me, two reasons, one intellectual and one political. While racism has contributed to black poverty, it cannot be the only cause of poverty in the United States, because more white than black people remain poor. I do not believe that the causes of poverty can be completely different for black people on the one hand and whites on the other. People are poor, or have household incomes of $25,000 or less, for many reasons today, including poor education (which is what both low income blacks and whites receive), de-industrialization, the erosion of workers’ rights, our inflated housing market, involvement with the criminal justice system, family breakdown, and a great deal more. And those things affect large numbers of white, black and Hispanic residents of the United States.
The political reason is more important.
The great tragedy of politics in the United States today is this: relatively poor white and black people (using the same scale) generally vote on opposite sides. The 2016 CNN exit polls did not break down income and race, but they did break down educational levels (with or without a college degree) and race (broken crudely into white and non-white.) Among nonwhites with no college degree, 77% voted Democratic and 22% voted Republican. Among whites with no college degree—of whom about twice as many voted—31% voted Democratic, and 66% voted Republican. That is why Donald Trump is in the White House.
I don’t have access to a Gallup Poll database here, but I’m pretty confident that substantial majorities of both white and black voters without college degrees voted Democratic from 1936 through 1964. In 1968, more than 15% of the white vote—much, though not all of it, from the lower half of our income distribution—moved to Nixon or Wallace. The intervening four years had seen urban riots, the emergence of the black power movement, the beginnings of a crime wave, and, of course, the escalation of the Vietnam War. It was during those years, I think, that liberal Democrats began associating poverty with race. Since 1964, only one Democrat, Barack Obama, has won significantly more than 50% of the popular vote in a presidential election, and no Democrat has won 50% of white votes.
Meanwhile, inequality has steadily increased, while income in the lower 50% of the population has been nearly stagnant for almost half a century. Good paying working class jobs have disappeared by the millions, and the cost of a college education has at least tripled over that same half century. An exploding housing market has made it very difficult for young people to buy a first house in our richest metropolitan areas. We have, in short, a winner-take-all economy in which it has become much harder to reach the top. We also have many more single individuals of all ages who cannot count on any other adults to help them get through life. What this means is that the average person in the lower economic half of the population—regardless of gender or race—will probably be disappointed by their economic status, all the more so if, like so many, they have substantial student debt. It is no accident, I think, that the United States made the greatest progress on racial issues in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, decades in which the economy was growing rapidly, inequality was decreasing, and so many millions of Americans had good reason to be satisfied with how things were going. Now many fewer do, and many find it all too easy, I think, to blame racism, sexism, immigration, or what looks to many like a national obsession with nonwhite poverty, for their own inability to achieve as much as they would like. While the less well-off blame other racial groups for their plight, we cannot do anything about steadily increasing corporate power. And neither party has really much of anything to arrest the trend towards inequality at the national level for a very long time.
Low income and wealth are diseases from which minority populations are more likely to suffer—but comparable or larger numbers of whites suffer from them too. Any solution to the problem has to treat the disease for everyone. History tells us how to do that: by taxing the wealthy much more heavily, by promoting rather than destroying the rights of labor, by building a lot more affordable housing, by making the government an employer of last resort, and by raising the minimum wage. Race- and gender-based political appeals will continue to thrive until we start dividing up the pie more equally. The state of our economy is the thing which, more than anything else, has the chance to bring us together, improve our society, and leave some of the bitter antagonism of recent years behind. And we need to do those things.