The United States has been here before, staring into the deep chasm that divides white and black Americans. It happened after cities burned in 1967, after Los Angeles erupted with the 1992 acquittal of police officers who beat Rodney King, after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
After those upheavals came talk of change — of reforming policing, yes, but also of expanding economic opportunity to black Americans who have been disproportionately left behind in one of the world’s richest countries.
Yet despite big pledges and high hopes, economic progress has come slowly, if at all, for black America. African Americans still earn barely 60 cents for every $1 in white income. They have 10 cents in wealth for every $1 whites own.
They remain more than twice as likely to live in poverty. And they’re about as likely to own a home as they were when Richard Nixon was president. Now, demonstrators are out in the streets again, this time to protest what happened in Minneapolis to George Floyd, dead after a police officer pressed a knee into his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
Once again, racial inequality underlies rage and despair, especially because the unrest coincides with an economic and health calamity, one that’s falling hardest, yet again, on African Americans. “We’ve got a perfect storm,” said Cecelia Rouse, professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University.
“COVID is wreaking economic havoc” for African Americans. Black Americans are far more likely than whites to die of COVID-19. They work disproportionately in low-paying service jobs — the ones that were slashed when restaurants and movie theaters closed as a health precaution and customers stayed away from hotels and airports.
“We’ve been blindsided by the pandemic,” said Imani Fox of the Washington community group ONE DC. Black workers who remain employed are more likely to work as front-line workers in warehouses, grocery stores and takeout eateries — jobs that leave them exposed to the virus.
“People are mad as hell,” said Monica Lewis-Patrick, president of the community group. “We the People of Detroit. We can’t be the wealthiest nation or declare ourselves the wealthiest nation in the world and still have these major inequities and disparities that are glaringly based on race.”
Rouse said she has reread portions of the Kerner Commission report, issued in 1968 to call for reform in the wake of the urban unrest of the late ’60s. “It was so depressing,” she said.
‘What has changed?” A month after the Kerner report, for example, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, meant to eliminate housing discrimination. Assessing the act on its 50th anniversary two years ago, Margery Turner of the Urban Institute wrote that African Americans and other minorities continued to face discrimination, though the “most blatant” forms of bias had declined.
“We still live in starkly segregated neighbourhoods,” she wrote, noting that the typical white Americans lives in a neighbourhood that is 75% white and 8% African American; a typical black American lives in a neighbourhood that is 35% white and 45% black.
The unemployment rate for black Americans hit a record low last fall. And black wealth, decimated by the financial crisis of the late 2000s, had in recent years outgrown white wealth. Then came COVID-19.
“When something goes wrong for all American workers, it’s going to disproportionately affect African Americans, who are often the most fragile in the economy,” said Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Amid the anger and anguish is optimism that policymakers will use this moment to find ways to narrow the economic gap between black and white Americans. Among the hopes is that political leaders can deliver reforms to America’s economic system: Paid sick leave. A higher federal minimum wage.
Perhaps even direct payments to the needy test-run, perhaps, by the $1,200 stimulus checks the government sent to many Americans as the economy shut down in the face of the pandemic. But the United States has had watershed moments before.
And the big changes didn’t come. Here’s a look at America’s economic racial divide and how it has and hasn’t changed after decades of protests: INCOME From 1968 to 2018, median income for black households, adjusted for inflation, rose 37% from $30,155 to $41,361. In percentage terms, that outpaced the 31% growth in household income for whites (from $51,138 to $66,943), according to the Census Bureau.
But black households still earn just 62 cents for every $1 earned by white households.