Marchers at an anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington in Washington in 2013. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

“When we start suggesting that somehow there’s this enormous polarization [on race] and we’re back to the situation in the ’60s — that’s just not true.”

President Obama , July 9

Whatever happens — and urban riots cannot be excluded — President Obama is correct on one thing: This is not the 1960s. Since then, we have become a far more open and tolerant society. African Americans have made significant economic and social advances, even if almost every gain is qualified by some glaring inequity or shortcoming.


Poverty: Black poverty, as measured by the government official poverty line (a pretax income now of $24,230 for a family of four), has dropped sharply. In 1967, the black poverty rate was 39.3 percent. By 2000, it was 22.5 percent; the Great Recession pushed it up to 26.2 percent in 2014, which was double the white rate of 12.7 percent.

Education: As with other Americans, blacks have received more schooling. In 1950, only 13.7 percent of adult African Americans (25 or older) had completed high school or more; by 2014, this was 86.7 percent, says the Education Department. Over the same period, the share of African Americans with a bachelor’s degree or higher went from 2.2 percent to 22.8 percent. But 35.6 percent of whites have at least a bachelor’s degree, and among high-school graduates there are stubborn achievement gaps between blacks and whites.

● Upward mobility: The black upper middle class — defined here as households with incomes of at least $100,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars — has grown impressively, from 2.8 percent of households in 1967 to 13 percent (one in eight) in 2014. But gains have stalled since 2000, when the rate was also 13 percent. Although the white rate has stalled too, it was 26 percent. Moreover, a Pew Research Center study finds that blacks own fewer stocks and bonds than whites with similar incomes.

Politics: Black elected officials have made huge gains, reports the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. When the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, five African Americans served in the House and Senate; now there are 44 House members and two senators (43 Democrats, three Republicans). Over a similar period, the number of black state legislators grew from about 200 to 700. Black officials represent 9.9 percent of House members and 8.5 percent of state legislators. But that’s lower than their share of the voting age population (12.5 percent), the report notes.

Racial stereotypes also seem to have softened. NORC at the University of Chicago, a respected academic polling organization, periodically explores intermarriage in its surveys. One question asks whites and blacks whether they’d favor or oppose a marriage of “a close relative” to a person of the other race. In 1990, only 5 percent of whites favored interracial marriage; 30 percent were neutral, and 65 percent opposed. By 2014, only 16 percent opposed. Blacks have been even more open to interracial marriage; since 2000, roughly 90 percent either approved or didn’t object.

What emerges is a portrait of imperfect progress. By many measures, blacks are better off than they were a half-century ago, and many are much better off. But as a group, the gaps with whites remain appallingly large. Society’s frame of reference is shifting. The people who watched or (for a minority) participated in the ’60s civil rights movement are aging. What they fought for and often achieved is the new norm: things taken for granted by their children and grandchildren.

Much needs to be done. Clearly, relations are strained between police and many minority communities. Schools in minority neighborhoods have struggled to raise achievement.

Private behavior also matters. The fact that about 70 percent of black births involve unmarried mothers is ominous, because these children tend to face “instable living arrangements, live in poverty and . . . have low educational achievement,” as Child Trends, a research group, puts it. (The implications for Hispanics, with single mothers representing 50 percent of births, and non-Hispanic whites — almost 30 percent — are also troubling.)

The real question is whether we continue along the messy path of imperfect progress or whether we slide into a paralyzing round of recriminations. Either way, we cannot escape what the president rightly calls “the difficult legacy of race.”

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