Census Figures Point to Climbing Racial Disparities
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
America has never been a nation where blacks and whites have fared equally, but now that gap is widening again. Recent census figures point to growing gaps in education, income and home ownership. White households had incomes that were two-thirds higher than blacks, 40 percent higher than Hispanics. And in the Carolinas, things are even worse. The poverty rate for whites is just under 8 percent. While for African-Americans, it's 24 percent.
North Carolina State Senator Malcolm Graham plans to tackle the issue with help from community members. He joins us from Charles Holloman Productions in Charlotte. And also joining us, Thomas Shapiro, professor at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. He's author of the book “The Hidden Cost of Being African-American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality.”
So welcome to you both.
Professor THOMAS SHAPIRO (Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University): Thank you.
Senator MALCOLM GRAHAM (Democrat, North Carolina State Legislature): It's good to be here.
Professor SHAPIRO: It's great to be here.
CHIDEYA: Senator Graham, I'm going to start with you. Residents of the Carolinas are even further apart than most of the U.S. on this racial disparity scale. This is information that comes from the census. And I want to know very specifically kind of how you view your community that you serve and why you think it is that there is such great disparities in your area?
Sen. GRAHAM: I think it's a tale of two coins, on the have and the have-nots. Charlotte/Mecklenburg, the area that I represent, is one of the most progressive parts of the South, North Carolina in general. The African-American communities are growing and thriving, but there are those disparities that exist in our community, which separates us based on assets, opportunity, and personal motivation. We have to somehow begin to bridge those gaps and have an opportunity to do that.
CHIDEYA: Tell me what you mean by personal motivation, because some, you know, African-American social scientists have said, well, you know, sometimes black people give up on progress because they haven't seen it. Other people say everyone wants to talk about whether or not there's the effort and not about what the structures are. How do you kind of make peace with those two different views of how people are striving?
Sen. GRAHAM: I think the personal responsibility piece and motivation piece is strong. I think when you look at the gaps and why they exist in terms of home ownership, income, the poverty rate, et cetera, we need to make sure that we all have the tools necessary to be successful. And that there are the relationships with the community is there to support those who need further opportunities to be motivated and moving in the right direction.
CHIDEYA: Prof. Shapiro, you've done a lot of fieldwork interviewing thousands of families from Los Angeles to Boston. Along the same lines, kind of what do you see as the factors on this?
Prof. SHAPIRO: Well, first, I think it is important to underscore that I think the findings from the American Community Survey, the latest release, really is a tale of two stories. On the one hand, we do see and I think we really do need to celebrate the levels of improvement. And most specifically I think it's important to point out the increase in the home ownership rate among African-Americans, for example, which is at an historic high.
We also see improvement in percent of the African-American population with bachelor's degree. And there are some other areas of a little more marginal improvement that we can point to, that clearly takes place on the part of merit and achievement and a lot of hard work.
Having said that, the other side of the story is the very persistent disparity in things like education and things like a median income. And that the ratio of median income, for example, between the average white and the average black family has stayed at about 60 percent ever since the late 1960s. It only goes up or down very, very slightly.
CHIDEYA: Let me just ask you why do you think that is? Is there - I mean you're talking about 40-plus years, then is it that racism remains the persistent problem, is it that government doesn't know how to address these problems, government doesn't want to, individuals don't know how to keep their communities together. You know, I know that no one really wants to point the finger, but to the extent that we can get to some root causes, what do you think they are?
Prof. SHAPIRO: Well, I think there are a lot of cuts that go into this stream -little stream of blood, if you will, if you don't mind that metaphor here, I think the opportunity is critically important. If we look at something like those families that have an adult that's college educated with a bachelor's degree, once we look at that parity and opportunity the income gap we can virtually close.
Once we look at how other opportunity structures where achievement is relatively equal, then also the income gaps have closed. So in many ways it really goes back to providing the social investment and a structure of opportunity. And then it's up to communities and families and individuals to make the most that they can out of those particular opportunities.
CHIDEYA: And, Malcolm Graham, again, you know, you're a state senator, really serving this area, which sounds economically diverse as well as racially diverse. I understand you are going to have a gathering in January. Tell us about that gathering and what you hope to accomplish.
Sen. GRAHAM: Well, yes, we are going to have the Charlotte/Mecklenburg African-American agenda. What we want to do is begin to bring our community together for a - to build collaborative relationships. If we're going to address the disparities that exist in our community, we need all our churches, all our Greek organizations, all our Masons and other specific institutions to come together to work towards solving these issues.
So we'll be having this meeting, Charlotte, January 5th and 6th. We invited in NPR Juan Williams, and Sister Souljah and Mayor Shirley Franklin from the city of Atlanta to be with us to begin talking about these issues from a very high-level viewpoint, nationally and statewide; and then to begin to build an agenda at the grassroots level where people and communities can begin starting to help ourselves to bridge these gaps. So we have to tackle, you know, making sure that there's a good public education system in place that educates our African-American students.
We need to make sure that there's affordable neighborhoods that connect to more opportunities. We need good jobs, and that's the root cause of bridging all these gaps. We need jobs and good educational opportunities, so we understand that there's a personal responsibility within our community that we have to address. And that's what we wanted to do in Charlotte, begin to look how - ways to bridge these gaps through collaboration and partnership, and we think we're on the right track to get it done.
It's a big job. But certainly when you look at the numbers they are compelling enough to be moved to action, and that's what we're trying to do within our community. And then say to them, a broader community, that these problems belong to everybody. So we need to buy in from major banks in town like Bank of America.
If you're going to have a small business, you need a business loan. If you want to buy a house, you need a house loan. We need to make sure that these institutions are sensitive to policies and programs in place that supports moving our community ahead and moving forward. So it's a building of relationships and asking community partners to help us close these gaps.
CHIDEYA: Do you believe you can do that? Do you believe that you can reach out to banks, employers, even the government that you're a part of in your state, and get them to say we've got to invest in this community?
Sen. GRAHAM: We have to invest. You know, I'm pretty simple and I believe that - and grew up in a grassroots level - you have to bring the resources, bring the help to where the people are. And the people are hurting. We need jobs. We need the corporate communities to step up in place in terms of providing those opportunities.
You know, going back 10, 15, 20 years, we had strong job programs where we identify opportunities for our kids at a very early age. We have to do that. And, you know, Farai, when you talk simply about the educational system, it is a - I have two daughters, a seventh and a eighth grader, and I'm in the schools every day. And we need to make sure that there are other adults surrounding our kids, holding the system accountable for educating our children. That's where it starts. And even something as simple as financial literacy, where we teach our kids to manage our money so we can buy businesses and go to the banks and get bank loans.
So there's some personal responsibility, the things that we have to do in terms of working with our children, working with our community building bridges, and also holding institutions like state government and city government and county government involved. Not only do we need to build these big museums that we're doing in Charlotte, the NASCAR Hall of Fame or our new NBA team but we need to build neighborhoods and relationships and build and invest in people, and that's' what we're trying to do here.
CHIDEYA: Prof. Shapiro, is this a good time to try to remedy racial inequality. At certain points in time, you know, late ‘60s, early ‘70s, this was a big focus of, you know, national efforts whether they were non-profit, government, private. What's the environment now?
Prof. SHAPIRO: Well, I think any time is a good time. And I think any time we don't put ourselves on the road towards equality and parity it's a bad time. Having said that, it's I think, looking back a little bit historically, it is less complicated of a task when the economic pie is drawing for everybody. And that's' not the context that we're operating in today, where for many Americans at best there are marginal increases in that economic pie. I also think that…
CHIDEYA: So people are anxious and it's not necessarily a good time to reach out in some people's minds?
Prof. SHAPIRO: There is - part of our context is of volatile and fragile and vulnerable middle class anxieties. That is really being squeezed, and in some minds there is a split in the agenda, if you will, between folks who are interested and want to focus on poverty alleviation and those that are a little more concerned or think more focus needs to be on middle class security.
CHIDEYA: All right. I'm almost out of time, but I wanted to ask Sen. Graham very, very quickly, do middle class blacks support a lot of changes that are going to effect poor and working-class black folks?
Sen. GRAHAM: I think they do, and I think we're all in this together. And when one moans, the other one is crying. So I think if it doesn't affect middle-class blacks today, it will effect them tomorrow. They are certainly concerned about these issues and problems.
CHIDEYA: All right. Well we've been talking to Malcolm Graham, Democratic state senator in North Carolina, and Thomas Shapiro, professor at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. Gentlemen, thank you so much.
Prof. SHAPIRO: Thank you for having us today.
Sen. GRAHAM: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: And coming up, Seinfeld star Michael Richards apologizes for a racial rampage, and the deal is off for O.J.'s books and Fox interview. We'll discuss these topics and more on our Roundtable next.
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