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Four Figures That Explain Racial Inequality in America

A new report looks at gaps in income, education, and wealth over the last 50 years.
Demonstrators participate in the Poor People's March in Washington, D.C., in 1968.

Demonstrators participate in the Poor People's March in Washington, D.C., in 1968.

In July of 1967, in the face of widespread race riots around the country, President Lyndon B. Johnson established an 11-member commission, headed by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, to investigate the causes of the nation's civil unrest. The following year, the so-called Kerner Commission released an exhaustive—and devastating—report on its findings.

"This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal," the report concluded. "Discrimination and segrega­tion have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American. ... To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values."

How far has the United States come in the years since? For insights, the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank, released a new report this week that looks at what has changed, and what hasn't, in the last 50 years. Below, four numbers that tell the story of racial progress and persisting inequality in America:

  • 92.3 percent: That's the percentage of black Americans who graduate from high school. This number is only slightly lower than the percentage of white Americans that graduate high school (95.6 percent). In 1968, the black-white high school graduation rate gap was much higher: Only 54.4 percent of black Americans graduated, in comparison to 75 percent of white Americans. Significant gaps persist, however, in college graduation rates. Today, only 22.8 percent of black Americans aged 25 to 29 are college graduates, in comparison to 42.1 percent of white Americans.
  • 21.8 percent: That's the poverty rate among black Americans. While the gap between black and white poverty rates has narrowed since the 1960s—when the black poverty rate sat at 34.7 percent, in comparison to 10 percent for white Americans—the black poverty rate today is still dramatically higher than the poverty rate among white Americans, which sits at 8.8 percent. Similarly, the median household income among black Americans is still dramatically lower than among white Americans ($40,065, as compared to $65,041). The median household wealth of white Americans ($171,000) is approximately 10 times higher than that of black Americans. And, at 7.5 percent, black unemployment in 2017 was actually higher than it was in 1968. Likewise, rates of home ownership among black Americans have barely budged since 1968.
  • 1,730: That's the number of black Americans, per 100,000 in the population, who are currently incarcerated. (By comparison, only 270 white Americans per 100,000 are currently incarcerated.) In America today, a black American is 6.4 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white American. Both white and black Americans have seen a dramatic increases in incarceration rates: In 1968, 604 black Americans and 111 white Americans (both numbers are per 100,000) were incarcerated.
  • 11.4: That's the infant mortality rate, per 1,000 live births, for black infants. This is over twice as high as the infant mortality rate of 4.9 for white infants. Similarly, life expectancy for black Americans (75.5 years) is still almost four years shorter than that of white Americans (79 years).

America may not be separate anymore, but it's still pretty unequal.