The University Record, December 4, 2000

New book analyzes prospects for African Americans in diverse America of the 21st century

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Since the start of the post-1950s Civil Rights era, Blacks have made substantial improvements in education and median income, according to New Directions: African Americans in a Diversifying Nation, edited by James S. Jackson, who directs the Program for Research on Black Americans at the Institute for Social Research.

The poverty rate for African Americans in 1999 was at a record low of 27 percent. And the Black-white gap in high school graduation is lower than it has ever been.

But in many key aspects of life, Blacks are still disadvantaged compared to whites, according to the book, just published by the National Policy Association.

For example, white males can expect to live 7.1 years longer than African American males. African American males account for 6 percent of the U. S. population, but 48 percent of all people in U.S. prisons and jails. And even though both Blacks and whites had the highest per capita income ever at the end of the 20th century, the Black-white income gap remained large, with Black per capita income only 61 percent of white’s.

“At the start of the 21st century, it’s as if Black Americans were standing at the starting line of a footrace with one leg hobbled,” says Jackson.

“In looking to the future, it is important to acknowledge that the United States has not been successful in addressing the issues of racial and ethnic incorporation, even framed simply in Black-white terms,” Jackson says.

The prospects for African Americans in an increasingly diverse society are not necessarily good, he suggests, since Blacks have the lowest average material attainment of any racial and ethnic group in U.S. society.

The strong recent growth of the U.S. economy has helped the situation of Blacks, as it has other minorities. But the economy cannot grow indefinitely, Jackson warns, “and government should not continue to rely on the market to provide a surrogate full employment policy.”

As immigration and differential birth rates among ethnic and racial groups contribute to an increasingly diverse population, the situation of Blacks compared with groups other than whites also will become an issue, Jackson points out.

“Current and historical relationships among ethnic and racial groups lead to several visions of a possible future society. The most likely is a ‘multiracial civil society’ in which pluralistic coexistence is the hallmark, and racial and ethnic differences are celebrated as groups work together to further the common good.

“But a future of racial division or harmony in the United States depends strongly on the extent to which ethnicities and races are included in society,” he notes. “Events of the past 40 years have shown that the removal of legal barriers does not necessarily result in full and equal participation. As the studies in this book attest, large and abiding inequalities in work, income, education, political participation and family life act against the full incorporation of many ethnic and racial groups.”

To address these challenges, the United States should “conduct an unparalleled assault on economic deprivation,” says Jackson, and must:

  • Enforce racial and ethnic anti-discrimination laws in education, employment, housing, politics, health services and criminal justice;

  • Develop a comprehensive government and private sector plan to address the long history of unequal racial treatment;

  • Rebuild neighborhoods and central cities;

  • Create programs that strengthen family formation and maintenance;

  • Implement educational and work opportunities for all;

  • Provide transportation systems that permit access to good jobs and decent living conditions.

    Contributing to the volume with U-M researchers are researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Princeton University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Virginia, the University of Minnesota, Harvard University, Northwestern University, the University of New Mexico, and the University of California at Los Angeles.