Segregation still blights the lives of African-Americans

July 09, 2020

“IF SOMETHING isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the coloured peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed,” Martin Luther King Jr told striking workers the day before he was shot dead in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1968 black Americans had only just realised formal legal equality after two centuries of slavery and one of Jim Crow, indentured servitude, lynchings and enforced residential segregation. They had been deliberately excluded from economic supports such as Social Security, mortgage guarantees and subsidised college for veterans. As a result, black American households earned around 60% of what white households did, and the typical black family had less than 10% of the assets of a typical white family.
Rucker Johnson, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, studied the outcomes of black children who attended integrated schools during the peak of efforts to end educational segregation. He found they had enormous effects on adult life. Integrated schooling increased wages by 30% and reduced the chance of incarceration by 22 percentage points. Other studies estimate a 68% increase in the chance of attending a four-year college. “There’s nothing magic about sitting next to white children,” says Francis Pearman, a professor of education at Stanford. “But one thing that’s consistent in the history of American schooling is that resources follow white children.”

The racial achievement gap on test scores between black and white students has narrowed in the past four decades, but remains at roughly two to four years of learning. Mr Pearman’s research has documented that poor neighbourhoods adversely affect students’ maths scores even if their schools are good. Black students who get to college are less likely than others to complete their courses; black men have an especially poor chance of making it to graduation. In 2016 only 29% of black adults above the age of 25 had an associate degree or higher, compared with 44% of white adults. At a time when the premium that a degree adds to lifetime earnings has increased a lot, this disparity is a big economic disadvantage.