By: Thomas B. Edsall
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 continued…