Race Equality Is Still a Work in Progress


AUG. 22, 2013

Fewer than one in three black Americans and not even half of whites say the United States has made “a lot” of progress toward achieving racial equality in the half-century since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared he had “a dream” that one day freedom, justice and brotherhood would prevail and that his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

As the nation is poised to observe the 50th anniversary next week of the March on Washington that Dr. King led, the poll and an analysis of racial disparities by the Pew Research Centerconclude that while five decades’ progress has been palpable on some fronts, Dr. King’s goal remains elusive on others.

Blacks and whites generally agree that the two races get along well, but about 7 in 10 blacks and more than 1 in 4 whites also concur that blacks are treated unequally by the criminal justice system. A majority of blacks also say they are treated less fairly than whites in public schools and in the workplace. Fully 1 in 3 blacks, 1 in 5 Hispanic Americans and 1 in 10 whites said they were treated unfairly within the last year because of perceptions of their race.

Though gaps in life expectancy and high school graduation rates have all but been eliminated, disparities in poverty and homeownership rates are about the same. Compared with five decades ago, imbalances in household income and wealth, marriage and incarceration rates have widened.

Rich Morin, an author of the Pew report, said he was struck by the disparity in perceptions of progress by race and political affiliation. “Whites and blacks view their communities very differently in terms of how blacks are treated,” Mr. Morin said. Over all, he said, “we’re clearly headed in the right direction.”

“People saw progress,” he said, “but they want more.”

The average three-member black household makes about 59 percent of what a similar white household makes — up from 55 percent in 1967 — but the income gap in actual dollars widened to $27,000 from $19,000. (The gap has widened between whites and Hispanic people, too.)

The median net worth of white households is 14 times that of black households, and blacks are nearly three times as likely to be living below the federal poverty threshold. The disparity in homeownership rates is the widest in four decades. As the Pew study noted, those realities are not lost on most Americans, only 1 in 10 of whom said the average black person is better off financially than the average white person (although more than 4 in 10 white and Hispanic respondents said the average black is about as well off as the average white).

Though marriage rates have generally declined over all, about 55 percent of whites and 31 percent of blacks 18 and older are married, compared with 74 percent of whites and 61 percent of blacks in 1960, a reflection, in part, of differences in educational attainment.

The gap in college completion rates rose to 13 percentage points from 6 (although the black completion rate, as a percentage of the white rate, has improved to 62 percent from 42 percent. The Hispanic rate remains at 42 percent).

In 1960, black men were five times as likely as white men to be in local, state or federal prison. Fifty years later, black men are six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated and Hispanic men three times as likely.

The historic disparity in voter turnout evaporated in 2012 with the re-election of President Obama, yet euphoria over his election has faded. Both blacks and whites were much less likely this year to say black people were better off than five years earlier than they did in a 2009 Pew survey after Mr. Obama’s first election. The latest nationwide survey of 2,200 adults was conducted this month after the Supreme Court in June effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, freeing nine states to change their election laws without advance federal approval.

“Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority.

Not so much, though, that nearly half of all Americans — 49 percent in all, or 44 percent of whites, 48 percent of Hispanics and 79 percent of blacks — said a lot more progress needed to be made to achieve Dr. King’s vision of a colorblind society. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to believe there has been racial progress. Fully 80 percent of all Americans say at least some more needs to be done.

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