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News from EPI 50 years after the Kerner Commission, black Americans are not economically equal

50 years after the Kerner Commission delivered a report to President Johnson examining the causes of civil unrest in African American communities, a new EPI briefing paper compares the state of black workers and their families in 1968 with the economic circumstances African Americans face today.

EPI economic analyst Janelle Jones, Vice President John Schmitt, and economist Valerie Wilson find that while African Americans today are much better educated than they were in 1968—and in many ways better off in absolute terms than they were in 1968—they are still economically disadvantaged relative to whites.

“Black Americans have clearly put a tremendous amount of personal effort into improving their social and economic standing, but that effort only goes so far when you’re working within structures that were never intended to give equal outcomes,” said Wilson, Director of EPI’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy.

Black workers still make only 82.5 cents on every dollar earned by white workers, African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be in poverty than whites, and the median white family has almost ten times as much wealth as the median black family. In 2017 the black unemployment rate was 7.5 percent, up from 6.7 percent in 1968, and still roughly twice the white unemployment rate. In 2015, the black homeownership rate was just over 40 percent, virtually unchanged since 1968 and trailing a full 30 points behind the white homeownership rate, which saw modest gains over the same period.

“Especially relative to the increases in educational attainment, America has failed African Americans over the last five decades,” said Schmitt. Schmitt notes that the share of African Americans in prison or jail almost tripled between 1968 and 2016, surpassing a parallel increase in the incarceration of whites.

Even after substantial progress in educational attainment of African Americans, there are still significant gaps between African Americans and whites with respect to college completion. More than 90 percent of younger African Americans (ages 25 to 29) have graduated from high school, compared with just over half in 1968—which means they’ve nearly closed the gap with white high school graduation rates. They are also more than twice as likely to have a college degree as in 1968 but are still half as likely as young whites to have a college degree.

“It’s clear that structural racism that is the root cause of this economic inequality,” said Jones. “Solutions must be bold and to scale, which means we need structural change that eliminates the barriers that have stymied economic progress for generations of African American workers.”

The paper will be distributed at an Economic Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins University, and Haas Institute at Berkeley conference to commemorate and discuss the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission report on civil unrest.