Sign in or register
for additional privileges

Growing Apart

A Political History of American Inequality

Colin Gordon, Author

You appear to be using an older verion of Internet Explorer. For the best experience please upgrade your IE version or switch to a another web browser.

A Closer Look at Race and Inequality

The racial gap in earnings, incomes and wealth reflects the long shadow of slavery, and the persistence of racial discrimination in employment, politics, education, housing, credit, and criminal justice. Slavery, of course, ended with resolution of the Civil War—and the adoption of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the constitution which outlawed slavery, and extended the principle of equal protection and equal voting rights to African-Americans. But the meaning of those legal guarantees was almost immediately compromised by the unwillingness and inability of the federal government to enforce them, and by the willingness and ability of southern states to erect new institutions of economic and political discrimination in their place. The reign of “Jim Crow” (which was codified in state law and enforced by threat and violence) included a new system of debt peonage, “separate but equal” public goods, and harsh limits on political participation.24   

The growth of federal power—particularly through the Depression and World War II—posed a direct challenge to “Jim Crow.” But, across this era, major federal programs (including Social Security, labor law, the minimum wage, and the GI Bill) were cut to accommodate Southern interests--either by deferring program administration and eligibility rules to the individual states or by exempting those occupations (especially agriculture and domestic work) in which African-Americans were segregated.  It was not until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and the 1960s that the formal institutions of Jim Crow were finally dismantled, while the prospect of redress for decades of discrimination was almost immediately blunted by the economic and fiscal climate of the 1970s.25

This history has directly and fundamentally shaped patterns of inequality.  While educational and occupational gaps have narrowed over time, they have stopped well short of ensuring equal opportunities or equal outcomes. This is true of wages, where the median for black workers has inched up slightly since 1979, but lost ground against white wages (the median black wage was almost 83 percent of white wages in 1979, it is under 77 percent today) [see FIG above]. 

Sidebar: The Unfinished March

African-Americans also have a much more tenuous foothold in the labor market, their unemployment rate, across the last business cycle, running more than double that of whites. It is true of incomes, where the median for black families has grown alongside that of white families since the 1960s—but without closing the gap between them (black median income reached 60 percent of white median income at the end of the 1960s; that ratio has not budged since [see FIG below]).

And it is dramatically true of wealth, where the legacy of deep discrimination in housing continues to shape the accumulated assets, or net worth, of African-American families. [see FIG below] The median wealth of white households is about twenty times that of black households, a ratio that is actually higher now than it was a generation ago. Fully one quarter of African-American families have no net assets. And the housing crash hit African-American families hard, pushing homeownership rates back below 45 percent.26

The close ties between race and inequality have been tightened in recent decades by the dramatic and devastating rise in incarceration rates (click here for a nice graphical summary). The U.S. incarceration rate more than tripled from 1980 to 2008—and in a startlingly uneven fashion: African Americans are incarcerated at 7 times the rate of white Americans. In 2008, over a third of black men between the ages of 20 and 34 were incarcerated. More than two-thirds of African-American men without a high school education born between 1975 and 1979 had a prison record by 2008. By the end of the twentieth century, incarceration was a far more common outcome for African-American men than military service or a college degree. If the incarcerated are included in the raw count of the labor force, African-American men without a high school education were more likely to be imprisoned than employed.27 

The impact of incarceration on inequality is hidden (those in prison are left uncounted by conventional measures of unemployment or poverty) but profound. Higher rates of imprisonment reflect not higher rates of crime, but an increasingly intensive policing or urban neighborhoods and institutions (including schools) and increasingly draconian sentencing laws. This, in turn, has served to exaggerate disadvantages based on race, place, and education. Jail suspends employment and income prospects for the period of incarceration, and undermines over the long haul for those who are released. Family members and dependents left behind fall into deeper poverty—and are themselves more likely as a result to end up behind bars. Mass incarceration, now accompanied by a vast prison-industrial complex, undercuts the bargaining power of “free” labor. And the systematic disenfranchisement of felons further skews the political reflection of racial and economic inequality.28 

Back to Introduction

Comment on this page

Discussion of "A Closer Look at Race and Inequality"

Add your voice to this discussion.

Checking your signed in status ...