NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Black Progress Slower Since 1970

September 3, 1997

Black progress is not a creation of affirmative action, say authors Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom. Well before affirmative action, blacks had begun a steady march toward equality, even in an era of rampant racial hostility.

  • On the even of World War II, only 5 percent of black men and 6 percent of black women had white-collar jobs of any kind.
  • By 1970, however, the proportion had risen dramatically -- to 22 percent of black men and 36 percent of black women.
  • The fraction of African-American families with middle-class incomes rose almost 40 percentage points between 1940 and 1970.

But progress has slowed since 1970. The number of families with middle-class incomes has inched up only another 10 points, and the poverty rate for black families has remained basically stagnant, about 15 points higher than that of whites. The reasons may be complex, but the link between black socioeconomic advancement and educational performance is too often overlooked.

  • The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests elementary and secondary school students, shows African-American students, on the average, far behind whites in math, science, reading and writing.
  • A 1991 study showed that, measured in years of school completed, black men earned 19 percent less than comparably educated white men, but measured on performance on basic tests of word knowledge, paragraph comprehension, arithmetical reasoning and mathematical knowledge, black men earned 9 percent more than white men with the same skills.

From 1971 to 1988, African-American students were rapidly catching up with their white classmates, but black progress began reversing itself after 1988. There is no obvious explanation why. Two tentative and partial explanations are that increased violence and disorder in the inner city affected life within the school itself, and that the deficiencies of American education hit hardest those most in need of that education. But instead of concentrating on improving basic education, much of the political establishment focuses on affirmative action.

Source: Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom, "The Real Story of Black Progress," Wall Street Journal, September 3, 1997.


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