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Decoding the rage in Ferguson

For more than a decade, African-American gains since the 1960s have been undergoing a reversal.

By: Thomas B. Edsall

A man stands in the street during a protest. (Source: AP) A man stands in the street during a protest. (Source: AP)

When rioting broke out in the Watts section of Los Angeles in the summer of 1965, African-Americans didn’t — couldn’t — know it yet, but the next three decades would turn out to be a period of sustained gains in terms of income, jobs, education and the status of blacks relative to whites. The rioting this past week in Ferguson, Missouri, by contrast, follows more than a decade of economic stagnation and worse for many black Americans, a trend that appears unlikely to be reversed in the foreseeable future.

The Watts riots — set off by the traffic arrest of a 21-year-old black driver by a white police officer — left 34 dead, 1,032 people injured and 600 buildings damaged or destroyed. The week of violence in LA began just five days after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and 13 months after he had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — the impact of which had not yet been felt in the daily lives of African-Americans.

During the decades following this landmark legislation, African-Americans made immense progress. The percentage of blacks over the age 25 with a high-school degree more than tripled, going from just under 20 per cent, or less than half the white rate, to more than 70 per cent, nearly matching the white rate. The percentage of blacks over 25 with a college degree quadrupled from 3 to 12 per cent over the same period. Similarly, black median household income grew, in inflation-adjusted dollars, from $22,974 in 1967 to $30,439 in 2000, a 32.5 per cent increase, more than double the 14.2 per cent increase for whites.

Things went off track, however, as the 21st century approached. The riots in Ferguson follow a period of setback for African-Americans, despite the fact that we have a sitting black president in the White House. While the economic downturns of the last decade-and-a-half have taken their toll on the median income of all races and ethnic groups, blacks have been the hardest hit. By 2012, black median household income had fallen to 58.4 per cent of white income, almost back to where it was in 1967 — 7.9 points below its level in 1999.

Income is a powerful measure of wellbeing, but equally important is the chance a person has of improving his or her position in life — of whether expectations are rising or falling. From 1965 to 2000, the poverty rate among blacks fell from 41.8 per cent to 22.5 per cent. Since then, it has risen to 27.2 per cent. The white poverty rate also rose during this period, but by a more modest 3.2 points. Blacks suffered more than whites as a result of the 2008-09 financial meltdown and its aftermath, but the negative trends for African-Americans began before then.

A 2007 pre-recession Brookings Institution study by Julia Isaacs, “Economic Mobility of Black and White Families”, found that “a majority of blacks born to middle-income parents grow up to have less income than their parents. Only 31 per cent of black children born to parents in the middle of the income distribution have family income greater than their parents, compared to 68 per cent of white children from the same income bracket.”

A more recent April 2014 study of black and white mobility by Bhashkar Mazumder, a senior economist at the Chicago Federal Reserve, showed similar results. That report is even more explicitly pessimistic. The Chicago Fed study found that among black children born between the late 1950s and the early 1980s into families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution, half remained there as adults, compared with 26 per cent of whites born in the bottom quintile. Of black children born to families in the top half of the income distribution, 60 per cent fell into the bottom half as working age adults, compared with 36 per cent of similarly situated whites.

Mazumder concluded that if future generations of white and black Americans continued to experience the same rates of intergenerational mobility, “we should expect to see that blacks on average would not make any relative progress.” He noted that this recent time period stood “in direct contrast to other epochs in which blacks have made steady progress reducing racial differentials.”

One optimistic note is that the white reaction to events in Ferguson, including the commentary of some outspoken white conservatives, has been sympathetic to the anger and outrage over the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager. This stands in sharp distinction to the aftermath of the violence in Los Angeles in 1965. Watts — and the string of urban riots in African-American neighbourhoods from 1964 to 1968 — was crucial to the expansion of the conservative coalition that dominated most federal elections from 1966 to 2004. Fear of violence helped elect Ronald Reagan governor of California in 1966 and Richard Nixon to the presidency in 1968. Law and order, white backlash, the silent majority and racial integration became core political preoccupations for once loyal Democratic whites as they converted to the Republican Party.

Nearly half a century later, however, conservatives have voiced ambivalent responses to the Ferguson rioting. On August 15, Erick Erickson, a popular conservative blogger at Red State, wrote a widely circulated posting titled “Must We Have a Dead White Kid?” “Given what happened in Ferguson, the community had every right to be angry,” Erickson wrote. Erickson was by no means alone among conservatives. Sharing his views were Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a prospective Republican presidential candidate, and Charles C.W. Cooke, a National Review columnist, who argued that conservatives should “acknowledge that — even when our understanding of the facts is limited — incidents such as this open old and real wounds.”

The fatal shooting of Michael Brown has produced a rare right-left convergence, a shared recognition that the overwhelmingly white police department of Ferguson has become a hostile occupying force for much of the town’s majority black population. There is, however, no left-right consensus about how to turn back the grim economic trends for African-Americans, much less what caused them.

Competing explanations for the difficulties that continue to plague African-Americans are a central element in the contemporary polarisation between left and right; in fact, they help define it. Democrats in the main are convinced that impediments to black advancement are structural, amenable to government intervention: a strong and better-funded safety net; public investment in manufacturing and infrastructure employment; more rigorous enforcement of anti-discrimination laws.

Many Republicans focus instead on what they see as moral collapse and the erosion of such values as hard work and traditional family formation among the poor. Government spending on social programmes, according to this view, creates disincentives to work and more trouble.

The urban riots of the second half of the 1960s prompted Washington to pump out money, legislation, judicial decisions and regulatory change to outlaw de jure discrimination, to bring African-Americans to the ballot box, to create jobs and to vastly expand the scope of anti-poverty programs. Civil unrest also drew attention to the necessity of addressing police brutality.

Today, however, political and policymaking stasis driven by gridlock — despite a momentary concordance between left and right on this particular shooting — insures that we will undertake no comparable initiatives to reverse or even stem the trends that have put black Americans at an increasing disadvantage in relation to whites — a situation that plays no small part in fuelling the rage currently on display in Ferguson.

Edsall, professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author, most recently, of ‘The Age of Austerity’

The New York Times

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