The news: If you're looking for a feel-good story about racial progress in America, look elsewhere. According to a new study, black men today are no better off relative to white men than they were 45 years ago.
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University of Chicago economists Armin Rick and Derek Neal shared their preliminary findings at the National Bureau of Economic Research this week. Although the paper is still awaiting peer review, its outlook is decidedly bleak thus far.
Background: Between 1940 and 1980, black Americans made significant progress relative to whites in "education, occupational prestige and income," according to a 1989 paper by James Smith and Finis Welch.
But that's where the good news ends. Starting around 1970, five years after the Civil Rights Act was enacted, the gap started widening and hasn't relented since. The Great Recession put the nail in the proverbial coffin of economic equality, prompting another set of sharp divergences in black and white socioeconomic status.
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Who's to blame? The paper cites two major factors driving this pattern: unemployment and mass incarceration.
Starting in 1970, employment rates fell at nearly twice the rate for black men as they did for white men. By 2010, more than a third of black men ages 25 to 49 were unemployed or outside the labor force. Reasons for this include disproportionate poverty rates and their resulting barriers to mobility, in addition to the demonstrated persistence of discriminatory hiring practices. According to multiple studies, most notably by Devah Pager, black men are less than half as likely to receive callbacks from potential employers as similarly qualified white men.
But: The most glaring impediment to black male social progress is their rate of imprisonment. The report claims that on "any given day in 2010, almost one in ten black men ages 20-39 were institutionalized," with rates for high school dropouts age 25-29 reaching almost one third.
Incarceration in the United States overall has skyrocketed since 1960, especially among black males. But its sharpest spike came in the years since 1980, when the War on Drugs assumed a more aggressive — and racialized — position in law enforcement priorities.
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"Prison spells harm the future labor market prospects of arrested offenders," the authors write, "and black men likely now face worse labor market prospects relative to white men than they faced when policy shifts in the late 1970s and early 1980s ignited the prison boom."
At best, these findings provide a clear guideline for what needs to change to start approaching racial equality. They also leave a troubling dent in our widely held notions of racial progress in the post-Civil Rights era.