Ten charts show how the U.S. has changed for the better since MLK’s speech

August 28, 2013

Earlier today, to mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, we posted a series of charts showing that the economic gap between whites and blacks hasn't really narrowed over the last 50 years. In some cases — like the wealth gap — it's actually widened.

Yet by other metrics, there has been a striking amount of racial progress in the United States since 1963. That's worth noting too:

1) Black voter turnout has risen considerably since 1963, closing the gap with whites:

2) That's particularly true in the South, where few blacks could vote in the 1960s, before the Voting Rights Act:

3) The Voting Rights Act also changed Congress, with the number of black members of Congress rising eight-fold:

4) In fact, the number of black elected officials rose all over the country:

5) It's now possible to have black presidents:

blackprez
Credit: Dylan Matthews

6) Black life expectancy has risen sharply since 1963, narrowing the gap with whites:

7) The gap in high school graduation rates has also closed:

This comes from Pew: "High school completion rates have climbed for all four groups in recent decades, but more sharply for blacks and Hispanics than for whites. In 1964, the black high school completion rate was 53% that of the white rate. By 2012, it was 93% that of the white rate."

8) Black college graduation rates continue to rise:

That's also from Pew. It's worth noting, however, that the gap in college graduation rates between blacks and whites has widened over time.

9) More blacks are breaking into the middle class and upper-middle class than was the case in 1960:


P90-P100 = the top 10% income bracket, P80-P90 = the next 10%, P60-P80 is the 20% after that. Basically these are the top income tiers.

With the rise in black college attendance came a rise in the black middle class. This chart, showing the uptick in the black middle-class and upper middle-class after 1960 comes from a recent paper (pdf) from Wojciech Kopczuk, Emmanuel Saez and Jae Song. Note, however, that progress has stalled since around 1980.

10) Cities are cleaning up lead pollution in black neighborhoods...:

...and, perhaps not coincidentally, the incarceration rate for young black men has been falling in the past decade:

Key caveat here, though: This last chart is only looking at the past decade. Between 1960 and 2000, there was a gigantic run-up in the number of black men in prison. As a result, "The incarceration rate of black men is more than six times higher than that of white men, slightly larger than the gap in 1960."

Related: For a more sobering view, here are 10 charts showing that the economic gap between blacks and whites has persisted stubbornly for 50 years.

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Dylan Matthews | August 28, 2013