Racial and economic disparities intertwined, study finds

Racial and economic disparities intertwined, study finds
“Essentially everyone outside the top 5 or 10 percent has seen their share of national income decline,” said Robert Manduca. Credit: Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

By many measures, the U.S. has made important strides when it comes to civil rights: The racial gaps in educational achievement, life expectancy, and wages, though still considerable, have all narrowed measurably in the past 50 years.

Yet in one marker of fundamental importance——disparities between black and white have remained virtually unchanged since 1968.

"Despite concerted efforts to close racial gaps, the median African-American today has a income about 56 percent that of the median white person," says Robert Manduca, a doctoral student in sociology and social policy in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. "That ratio hasn't changed much since 1968, when it was 57 percent. So the question is why, 50 years later, when racial gaps in other areas have narrowed, why aren't we seeing a corresponding narrowing for income?"

In a study published in Sociological Science, Manduca argues that a major reason that economic disparities between the races remain so large is rising nationwide. While African-Americans have moved to higher ranks on the scale in the decades since the c Movement, those improvements have largely been blunted by rapid income growth for the richest members of society and income stagnation among lower- and middle-class families.

"If we look at income rank—where people fall along the income distribution—there actually has been improvement in narrowing the disparity. It used to be that the vast majority of whites made more than the median African-American. That fraction has come down substantially, meaning that there is less racial income stratification than there was in the 1960s," Manduca said. "The reduction is in line with the declines we've seen in in education and life expectancy: nowhere near complete, but measurable improvement."

In 1968, the average black family stood at about the 25th percentile of the income distribution, said Manduca. Today, they are at the 35th percentile.

"The black-white gap in income rank has narrowed by about a third," Manduca said. "There is still a lot of work left to be done, but there has been some progress."

However, narrowing the rank gap has not translated into more dollars for black families.

"Outside the very richest few percentiles, there has been a dramatic decline in the fraction of national mean income earned at any given rank," he said. "The people standing at the 35th percentile in 1968 were earning 69 percent of the national mean, and today they earn just 48 percent. So, if you look at what the median African-American family is making as a percentage of the national mean income, that number has gone down, despite the fact that they moved up in terms of rank."

Wage stagnation does not only affect black families: As a percentage of the national mean, the median income for white families has fallen about 14 percent, too. But the impacts of wage stagnation have disproportionately fallen on African-American families because they were already at the lower end of income distribution.

"Essentially everyone outside the top 5 or 10 percent has seen their share of national income decline," Manduca said. "But because there are disproportionate numbers of African-Americans still in the lower part of the income distribution and disproportionate numbers of whites at the high end … those changes that have harmed almost everyone have also exacerbated the racial gap."

Despite this bleak picture, Manduca believes his findings present some reason for optimism.

"These results show that we have overlooked some progress toward racial economic equality over the last 50 years. If you just look at dollars, you would say that reforms like antidiscrimination legislation, opening up access to education, and other efforts aren't moving the needle," he said. "But what these findings show is that those efforts have paid dividends. The problem is their success has been undermined by this other force, which is the economy-wide trend of rising ."

What's more, Manduca believes, the repercussions of wage stagnation and rising income inequality are felt by black and white families alike, creating the chance to form broad coalitions that might work together to level the playing field.

"Huge swaths of the U.S. have an interest in reducing economic inequality," he said. "What my results suggest is, in addition to making the economy fairer for everyone, those economic reforms will also reduce the disparities between racial groups."

Going forward, Manduca is working to explore how income inequality has affected different regions of the country, and what impacts those changes have had on other groups, including Latinos and Native Americans.

"People ask what our political priorities should be—is it more important to address racial divisions or income inequality?" he said. "One thing I think these results show is you can't really separate the two. Racial inequality and economic inequality are fundamentally intertwined. If we forget that, we find ourselves in situations like the one I document here, where from a racial stratification point of view things have improved, yet that progress is negated by rising inequality."


Explore further

Americans vastly overestimate progress toward racial economic equality

More information: Robert Manduca. Income Inequality and the Persistence of Racial Economic Disparities, Sociological Science (2018). DOI: 10.15195/v5.a8
Journal information: Sociological Science

Provided by Harvard University
Citation: Racial and economic disparities intertwined, study finds (2018, October 26) retrieved 17 August 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2018-10-racial-economic-disparities-intertwined.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.
196 shares

Feedback to editors

User comments

Oct 27, 2018
Why aren't Chinese, Japanese, Arabs, Indians, etc., ALL visible minorities living in the West equaly disadvantaged? In fact, most of them do better on average than whites.

Oct 27, 2018
Social science isn't a science it is opinion. Explain why Black Africans immigrating to America don't suffer the same fate.....it is because the Black family has been destroyed by " Social Engineers" based on nonsenseical studies like this. Liberal do gooders have destroyed the Blac family and THAT s the problem. I'msorry my tax dollars pay for this type of nonsense.

Oct 27, 2018
, the median African-American today has a family income about 56 percent that of the median white person


improvements have largely been blunted by rapid income growth for the richest members of society and income stagnation among lower- and middle-class families.


They're mixing up means and medians - a two related concepts describing averages.

The median doesn't change when the richest members of society get richer, because of how median works: you put people in a line from poorest to richest and pick the middle one. It doesn't matter how rich the richest 1% is - it doesn't change the middle one.

Mean however, is summing up all the riches and dividing by the number of people to get the average. When the richest guy gets richer, the mean goes up. Comparing medians and means is apples to oranges, even though both are in their own way "averages".

They're obviously talking about a mean when they say the richest are getting richer, but that doesn't compare

Oct 27, 2018
Comparing means to medians can be deceptive. Take five people of two groups and give each one a value like so:

Group A: 1,2,3,4,5
Group B: 1,2,3,5,7

The mean of group A is 3 whereas the mean of group B is 3.6
The median for both A and B is 3. Now, if you say that the "average" member of group A has fallen behind of B because their median is 3 while B has a mean of 3.6, you're making a slight of hand.

If this was money, counting the mean of group B to be in advantage to its median member - in order to argue that B as a group is categorically better off than A, is false because the group mean doesn't actually make the median member any richer.

The poor of both groups are just as many and just as poor, and the middle class as well.

It's the rich that make a difference, and between 1968 and now it's just the same rich people who have gotten richer.

Oct 28, 2018
IQ and economic disparities are intertwined. Stop blaming whites for other's stupidity.

And things are better than ever for ALL people in history now, it's not like poor people had it better fifty years ago.

Oct 28, 2018
IAnd things are better than ever for ALL people in history now, it's not like poor people had it better fifty years ago.
Oh not everyone. Minimum wage is 40% less, while my state university costs around 4 times as many median wage hours to pay for here in the US, for 2 stats that have a lot to do with prospects for the bottom half of Americans.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more