[Except where otherwise noted, the following statistics are from Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith’s excellent study of race and religion, “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America” (Oxford University Press, 2000).]
A century and a half after the abolition of slavery and half a century after the end of Jim Crow, America is still a highly racialized society.
Not uniquely so, of course. Throughout the world, the black-white racial divide is still marked by lingering antipathies and entrenched socio-economic inequalities where the races meet. But America is our focus for today.
Where do we see this? In intermarriage rates, residential patterns, economic standing, artistic expression, health, language, the media, and worship–to name just a few.
Let’s begin with interracial marriage, about which we know a thing or two. It is estimated that less than 1% of Americans marry across the black-white racial divide, less than any other interracial pairings. Among African Americans, who constitute just 13% of the US population, roughly 1% of women and 3% of men are married interracially, adding up to less than one-half of one percent of all existing marriages.
Turning to residential patterns, black Americans are by far the most isolated of all racial groups: the higher the percentage of black people in a given area, the greater the level of segregation. And whereas rising socioeconomic status brings lower levels of segregation for other groups, there is no such strong pattern for African Americans. In fact, highly educated white people are more likely than those with less education to say they are comfortable sharing the same neighborhoods and schools with black people, but in practice they are more segregated than white people with less education, even when controlling for income and other factors.
Emerson and Smith suggest this is not because well-educated white people are more prejudiced in the traditional sense, but rather because they are in a better position to follow the “American dream” of “a nice home in a quiet neighborhood with parks and good schools”–typically white. The authors conclude, “Residential segregation by race… isolates African Americans, and concentrates poverty and social problems in their neighborhoods.”
What is the economic picture for black people in America? White people are more likely to be in better-paying and prestigious jobs while black people are twice as likely to be without any employment at all. In fact, the unemployment gap between black and white has widened since the 1950s.
Small wonder, then, that average incomes vary widely between the races, with black workers earning roughly sixty cents on every dollar earned by white people, a ratio that has remained virtually unchanged since 1967. Lower incomes lead to higher poverty rates, with the rate of poverty among African Americans three times that of white people.
Incomes aside, when you look at the kind of wealth that is available “to create opportunities, secure a desired stature and standard of living, or pass class status along to one’s children”, there are significant disparities that defy explanation in terms of education, occupation, parent’s occupation, income, family type, etc. Emerson and Smith report that the median net worth (assets minus debts) of white people in 1994 was $43,800 compared to $3,700 for black people, a ratio of twelve to one. The median net assets (net worth minus equity accrued in a home or vehicle) totaled $7,000 for white people and $0 for black people. By 2011, the gap had widened further according to the Pew Research Center (relying on US Census data), with white people enjoying twenty times the median wealth of black people.
As if that weren’t evidence enough of the racial wealth gap, a longitudinal study of 2,000 black and white families between 1983 and 2007 conducted by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University showed a quadrupling of the racial wealth gap in this period across both low- and middle-income families. Indeed, “wealth begets wealth” and the lack thereof does same.
Glancing at the middle class: even there, the picture is grim. According to Emerson and Smith, median net assets for college-educated white people in 2000 were almost $20,000 whereas, for black people, they stood at $175. This put the black middle class on very insecure ground as “a downturn in the economy or a change in marital status quickly sends significant numbers of the black middle class into lower classes.” Such was the case in the financial crisis of 2008, during which white people saw a decline in median wealth of 16% while black people saw a decline of 53%.
Emerson and Smith conclude that “even if all homes and vehicles were taken from white Americans, they would still, on average, have greater net worth than black Americans.” A large part of the asset haemorrhaging that black, as well as Hispanic, people have experienced during the recession was because the housing market collapse meant that the one asset that these communities owned was often taken away. White families were more likely to have other diverse investments.
Some will conclude from these statistics that black people are simply less hard-working and less intelligent/capable than people of other races, and just refuse to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”. Others will point to affirmative action programs and other forms of support society provides to (previously) disadvantaged groups and conclude that the problems are internal to the black community itself.
Black people are not devoid of all agency or responsibility. But if the foregoing statistics are not enough to establish the extent of race-based inequality, consider the racialised nature of American society when it comes to who lives and dies.
A Massachusetts study of all patients admitted for circulatory disease and chest pain found that white patients were 89% more likely to be given life-saving coronary bypass surgery than black patients. Even more shocking, a nationwide study of Medicare patients found that white people were three times more likely than black people to receive the same treatment. According to Emerson and Smith, “without apparent intention, doctors discriminated against African Americans and in favour of white Americans in recommending [life-saving] surgery.” This is now a well-studied phenomenon named “unconscious bias”.
Similarly, it is reported that a patient’s likelihood of finding a bone marrow donor is:
66% if the patient is black;
72% if they are Hispanic;
73% if they are Asian;
82% if they are American Indian; and
93% if they are white.
Furthermore, black babies die twice as often as white babies do; and black mothers die four times more often in childbirth than do white mothers. The likelihood of a young black man dying is six times greater than is that of a young white man.
Simply put, the world is still a brutally unequal place, and a major deciding factor is whether one is born black or white.