Why African-Americans Are No Better Off Than 50 Years Ago

Why African-Americans Are No Better Off Than 50 Years Ago

2018 marked the end of a 50 year period that began in 968 with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, the year the Fair Housing Act passed, the year the Kerner Commision report revealed the cause of riots, and the same year John Carlos and Tommie Smith gave the Black Power salute at the Olympics.

50 year serves as a great opportunity to look back and see how far race in America has come and according to Race and Social Policy Research Center Director, Wornie Reed, “the bottom line is that we have not come very far, if at all, since 1968.”

“Unfortunately, the data show that with all of this progress on the electoral front there was little if any relative improvement in the lives of African Americans. In fact, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 made 2018 one of the the worst years for voter suppression of African Americans and other minorities since 1968.” – Wornie Reed


Why African-Americans Are No Better Off Than 50 Years Ago

Here are just a few areas of significant stagnation or retrogression:


In 2008 the National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, co-chaired by former Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretaries, Democrat Henry Cisneros and Republican Jack Kemp, investigated the state of fair housing. To assess progress since the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the Commission held hearings for six months in five major cities. They concluded that ongoing discriminatory practices in the nation’s housing and lending markets continued to produce residential segregation.

Despite this bipartisan assessment, the current Administration is scaling back fair housing enforcement and moving to make it more difficult to find patterns of discriminatory or predatory lending. They have passed legislation to exempt banks from their obligation to collect and provide data routinely collected on their lending processes.

Poverty And The Black-White Wealth Gap

During his Poor Peoples Campaign, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said, “I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out…This is the way I’m going.” We called the rate of poverty an outrage then. It is worse now. The numbers and proportions of people in poverty in the United States have increased since 1968.


The Great Recession of 2007-8 was far worse for African Americans. Black homeowners had a higher percentage of their wealth tied up in home equity, and they were much more likely to be victims of predatory lending during the housing boom. Blacks and Latinos were more than twice as likely as comparable whites to receive high-cost loans. African-Americans have lost over half of their wealth since the beginning of the recession through falling homeownership rates and loss of jobs.

Why African-Americans Are No Better Off Than 50 Years Ago

African American families are continuing to fall behind whites in building wealth — how much a family has in savings, investments, real estate, and cash, less any debts. White family wealth was seven times greater than black family wealth in 2016. Despite some fluctuations over the past five decades, this disparity is as high or higher than was in 1963.

Further, there has been no reduction in labor market discrimination. At the Race and Social Policy Research Center at Virginia Tech, we analyzed the income of all black and white full-time workers in the United States between 1967 and 2005. Controlling for education, we found that for every dollar a white worker earned in 1967 a black worker earned 65 cents. In 2005 a black work earned 66 cents for every dollar that a white person earned, not a real increase.


During the last 50 years African Americans have become even more prominent in sports, with four current stars arguably considered the best of all time in their respective sports: Simone Biles in gymnastics, Serena Williams in Tennis, Tiger Woods in golf, and Lebron James in Basketball.

Why African-Americans Are No Better Off Than 50 Years Ago

Nevertheless, just like in 1968 black athletes are protesting racial discrimination. Two years ago Colin Kaepernick took a knee to protest the disproportionate use of police force against African American males and related issues, That protest was joined by other African American athletes, in football and other sports. And some of it continues.

Mass Incarceration

According to Michelle Alexander, author of the groundbreaking book had this to say:


“For a very long time, criminologists believed that there was going to be a stable rate of incarceration in the United States. About 100 of 100,000 people were incarcerated, and that rate remained constant up until into the early 1970s. And then suddenly there was a dramatic increase in incarceration rates in the United States, more than a 600 percent increase in incarceration from the mid-1960s until the year 2000.

Why African-Americans Are No Better Off Than 50 Years Ago

An exceptional growth in the size of our prison population, it was driven primarily by the war on drugs, a war that was declared in the 1970s by President Richard Nixon and which has increased under every president since. It is a war that has targeted primarily nonviolent offenders and drug offenders, and it has resulted in the birth of a penal system unprecedented in world history.”

She went on to emphasize that “Many people imagine that our explosion in incarceration was simply driven by crime and crime rates, but that’s just not true. That is sheer myth, although there was a spike in crime rates in the 1960s and 1970s. During the period of time that our prison population quintupled, crime rates fluctuated.”

Riots, Uprisings, and the Kerner Commission

One month before Martin Luther King was assassinated, the Kerner Commission released its report. The United States National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission after its chair, Governor Otto Kerner, Jr. of Illinois, was an 11-member Presidential Commission established by President Lyndon B. Johnson in Executive Order 11365 to investigate the causes of the 1967 race riots in the United States and to provide recommendations for the future.

This Presidential commission investigated the riots and disorders of the mid-1960s and reported what MLK called a “physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.” The Commission offered the most forthright analysis and discussion of the racial situation in America that has ever been done by a high-level commission or committee.

The Kerner Commission stated the following:

“White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II….What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

The Kerner Commission concluded that the United States had three options for dealing with the situation. One was to do nothing, which was not acceptable. A second option was to work on improving black ghettoes, which was useful but not desirable. The third was to integrate cities, suburbs, and transportation to workplaces (factories and plants).

Many Americans thought we would choose the third option and be on our way to a better America. However, one month later Martin Luther King was assassinated, blacks rioted all over America, and the narrative changed—from correcting what white society had wrought to blaming it all on the problematic culture of black folks. To this day we have not overcome the political and policy effects of that narrative.

A Vision For The Next 50 Years

If you keep doing what you have always done you will keep getting what you have always gotten. – Unknown

Why African-Americans Are No Better Off Than 50 Years Ago Since 1968, the Black community in the United States have adopted the King philosophy to progress. We have forced our way into white neighborhoods, into white colleges and universities, and into white workplaces. We have peacefully petitioned a violent white system even while our children are lynched. We have surrendered our political capital to alien groups that return our support with disdain.

All of these behaviors have had a devastating effect on our own communities: When we force our way into white neighborhoods, Black neighborhoods suffer. When our best students force their way into white colleges and universities, our Black HBCUs lose. And when we force our way into white workplaces, we become wage slaves.

Time being the great teacher that it is, we see now that the approach advocated by Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and Madame CJ Walker is our path to salvation. If we instead embrace self-determination, return to rebuild our Black communities, and rear our children to attend HBCUs not as future employees but as future business owners, we can hope to change the trajectory of the next 50 years.

This article originally appeared in part at The San Antonio Observer with commentary by Wornie Reed. Reed is the Director of the Race and Social Policy Research Center at Virginia Tech. He is an expert on race, ethnic health disparities, social policy, criminal justice and his research focus is on criminal justice, discrimination, healthcare, and labor. Reed’s expertise has been featured in Huffpost, CTV (Toronto, Canada), WBFO (Buffalo, NY NPR Affiliate), WFAE (Charlotte, NC NPR affiliate), WCVE(Richmond, VA PBS member station) and WVTF (Virginia NPR affiliate).

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