The National Urban League’s State of Black America 2017 report, issued Tuesday, notes that the average African American household brings in about half as much income as a white household. Unemployment rates for black people are twice as high. And those disparities have remained virtually unchanged for the past 40 years.
Here’s the good news: More black people are going to college, and black life expectancy is on the rise, the report points out.
But there’s an obvious hitch. If you can’t find a job or you do but end up getting shortchanged on payday, that longer life can become a living hell.
“If you are middle class and African American in this country, there is no guarantee that your children will be middle class,” Urban League President Marc Morial said in an interview. “We are seeing many instances of second-generation African American middle class falling into the lower middle class and back into poverty.”
The Urban League, a nonprofit civil rights and urban advocacy group, released its first State of Black America report in 1976. In recent years, the report has included an “equality index” that assesses an increasingly important category called black civic participation.
Whatever improvements African Americans hope to make, political action at the state and local levels will be crucial. However, during the past year, there has been no noticeable increase in black participation.
In the age of President Trump, there is no such thing as standing still. Either you are going forward. Or you are going backward.
“In state, local and off-year elections, black voter turnout has been low, and it’s trending lower,” Morial said. “At the same time, you have voter suppression efforts underway in more than half the states, which can have an adverse impact on over 50 percent of African American voters, you have declining participation among blacks in the political process.”
Going backward, it is.
In Ferguson, Mo., where a police shooting of an unarmed black man in 2014 sparked weeks of protests and unprecedented political activism, a mayoral election was held last month. In the town of 24,000, only 3,727 votes were cast. No voter intimidation. No voter ID trickery. No poll tax. No literacy test. Just thousands of registered no-shows.
“There a cynicism and distrust, a sense that the person elected will not do anything to change things,” Morial said. But there also must have been some pitiful, uninspiring politicians vying for office. “We need candidates who can energize voters, get out into the community and listen to what people have to say.”
The Urban League report can be viewed as a composite of black America, a numerical blending of 40 million disparate people — 25 percent of them living in poverty with the bottom 5 percent subsisting on little more than $7,000 a year, according to the census.
In the District, the median income for white D.C. households was $120,000 in 2015, compared with $41,000 for black households. The black income would no doubt be in the triple digits, too, and make for quite a rosy picture, were it not for the fact that 27 percent of the city’s black population live in the poverty.
The critical difference: about 90 percent of white residents have college degrees compared with only 26 percent of blacks.
To address the problem, the Urban League last year introduced a “Main Street Marshall Plan” that calls for spending $1 trillion over five years to create jobs and improve education in urban areas.
On the campaign trail, Trump pledged to implement a similar jobs program for the “inner city.” But since being elected, he rarely mentions it.
Joshua Holland, writing for the Nation in August, noted, “If current economic trends continue, the average black household will need 228 years to accumulate as much wealth as their white counterparts hold today. Absent significant policy interventions, or a seismic change in the American economy, people of color will never close the gap.”
For the sake of morale, at least, perhaps it’s time to stop those hopeless comparisons between blacks and whites. For all the racial inequality and economic disparity, at least 2 million African American households earn at least $250,000 a year. The top 5 percent have a median net worth of about $739,000, according to Black Enterprise magazine. That’s six times greater than the median net worth for white households.
Two characteristics stand out about those doing well financially: 69 percent went to college and 64 percent are married or live with a partner. Of course, that means 31 percent didn’t go to college and 36 percent didn’t have a spouse. Find out how those African Africans succeeded, too.
Who knows? The Urban League may not have to wait two centuries to report that Black America has finally arrived.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.