While this year's annual State of Black America report from the National Urban League focuses as usual on areas of progress (education, healthcare and economic well-being) and regress (criminal justice) over the past year, the report took the unusual step of warning that the organization now has a new priority: protecting areas of progress from retrenchment during the Trump years.
"During the Obama era, the economy added 15 million new jobs, the black unemployment rate dropped and the high school graduation rate for African Americans soared," Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said in the report. "Now that progress, and much more, is threatened...The National Urban League is resolute; we will protect our progress."
In the report, called "Protect Our Progress," the Urban League suggested that the nation should invest in a "Main Street Marshall Plan" that would ensure that the gains made by black Americans during the Obama administration aren't lost. The plan includes expanding pre-K, increasing the number of college students receiving Pell grants, increasing the minimum wage and summer youth employment programs, and incentivizing more doctors to accept Medicaid.
But amidst a climate where the current administration is looking to make cuts in many of these areas — as the Urban League acknowledges in the report — it would be daunting to initiate a national movement to mobilize the Urban League's Main Street Marshall Plan.
As it has for more than a decade, the Urban League used its Equality Index to track how close black America has gotten to white America in five major areas: education, health, social justice, economics and civic engagement. For the 8th year, the report also tracks the progress of Hispanic Americans compared to whites. In addition, the report ranks the nation's 70 largest metropolitan areas on the measures of black-white and Hispanic-white unemployment and income equality.
There wasn't much change between 2015 and 2016 in the five areas the Urban League measures. For this reason, the overall 2017 Equality Index of Black America was 72.3 percent, compared to 72.2 percent the year before. An index of 100 percent would mean full equality in the particular measure between blacks and whites.
The biggest increase came in the area of education, which rose from 77.4 percent in 2015 to 78.2 percent in 2016. The report attributed the rise to three areas of progress: a large decline in the share of African-American students who have teachers with less than three years of experience; a higher percentage of African Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 earning associate's degrees; and increased home literacy activities for African-Americans.
"The education index also received a positive boost from a notable decline in high school dropout rates among all students, including African Americans," the report noted.
In economics, black Americans went from an equality index rate of 56.2 percent in 2015 to 56.5 percent in 2016 — largely due to an improvement in the black unemployment rate, an increase in black women's wages, an increase in black-owned businesses and a decline in high-priced loans for black consumers.
In healthcare, the equality index between black and white Americans went from 79.4 to 80 percent between 2015 and 2016, partly due to greater access to healthcare because of the Affordable Care Act and a decrease in the number of overweight children.
The only decrease came in social justice, from 60.9 to 57.4 percent. While part of the drop was due to a change in how the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports data on traffic stops, the report said there was also an increase in the incarceration of African Americans following an arrest.
In the category of civic engagement, African Americans actually surpass whites, according to the Urban League, with the number between 2015 and 2016 remaining at 100.6 percent.
As for Hispanics, there was a bigger increase in the overall Equality Index, from 77.9 percent in 2015 to 78.4 percent in 2016. According to the Urban League, this was largely due to a major improvement in the health index (from 105.5 percent to 108.8 percent, meaning Hispanics are healthier than whites) and smaller gains in the education (from 74.2 percent to 75.3 percent) and economics indexes (from 61.9 percent to 62.1 percent). Those improvements helped offset regressions in social justice (from 75.9 percent to 69.7 percent) and civic engagement (from 67.6 percent to 67.3 percent).
For the report, the Urban League also ranked the 70 metropolitan areas from the smallest gap in unemployment between blacks and whites (and Hispanics and whites) to the largest gap. For blacks, the area with the smallest black-white unemployment gap was San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX, where the black unemployment rate was 6.4 percent (down 1.9 percentage points from the previous year) and the white rate was 4.5 percent (down 0.4 percentage points). The area with the largest gap was Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI, where the unemployment rate for blacks was 13.8 percent, while just 2.7 percent for whites. This area also ranked last in last year's report.
In income inequality, Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA for the third consecutive year had the smallest difference between black median household income and white median household income — even though the median black household income in Riverside fell from 76 cents for every dollar of median white household income in 2015 to 72 cents in 2016. The city with the biggest income gap was Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI, where the chasm was 41 cents for blacks for every dollar earned by a white person. In Minneapolis, the median household income for blacks was $31,672 (up 12.4 percent from last year's Index) compared to $76,581 for whites.
For Hispanics, there were four areas where Hispanics actually had a higher employment rate than whites, with North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton, FL, as the most advantageous for Hispanics with a percentage of 114.5. The metro area with the largest disparity between the Hispanic and white unemployment rate was Rochester, NY, at 35.7 percent. As for income inequality, the area with the least inequality was Modesto, CA, where the median Hispanic household had 88 cents for every dollar of median white household income. Springfield, MA, had the biggest gap between Hispanic and white incomes at 40 cents on the dollar.
For both blacks and Hispanics, the area with the highest median household income was Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV, at $68,054 for blacks and $69,481 for Hispanics. It also had the highest white household income at $112,177.
As the Urban League focuses on protecting advancements, Valerie Rawlston Wilson, director of the Economic Policy Institute's Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy, said the 2017 Equality Index provides a "line in the sand" to measure what happens from now on.
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and three-time New York Times bestselling author. Follow him @nickwrite.