- Employment and educational opportunities have increased for the US black population over the past few decades.
- However, data shows there is still wide inequality between the black and white populations.
- We put together 11 charts that highlight changes in the social and economic status of black Americans over time, including the unemployment rate, college attainment, and overall household wealth.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
February is Black History Month, when Americans celebrate the achievements of well-known black figures and the progress that has been made so far for the US black population.
There have been improvements in different areas of living (such as black employment and earnings) since the 1960s, when many of the government tools tracking racial disparities were launched. For example, the number of black students earning a college degree has risen dramatically in the last several decades.
Still, inequality persists. For instance, change in overall household wealth has been minimal for black families compared to their white neighbours.
The following 11 charts show just how much progress has been made over time in terms of earnings, employment, education, and politics – and how far we have left to go.
The unemployment rate for black Americans has declined in recent years, but remains higher than the white unemployment rate.
In January 2020, the white unemployment rate of 3.1% was below the national rate of 3.6%. However, the black unemployment rate was higher, at 6.0%. The white unemployment rate has consistently been about half the black unemployment rate since the early 1970s, the earliest period for which data is available.
Change in household wealth over the past few decades has been minimal for black households compared to white households.
Each quarter since 1989, the Federal Reserve has released household wealth data. Using holdings of total assets – the sum total of all housing, financial, and other things of value owned by black and white households in the US – there are large differences in wealth between the two demographics.
While assets have substantially risen for white families over the years, aggregate black household assets have not seen much change over the past three decades.
Over time, the total wealth held by all black US households combined was consistently just 4% to 6% of overall white household wealth, suggesting that black America as a whole remains in a much weaker financial situation than white America.
One factor in the wealth gap between black and white Americans is student loan debt.
Student loan forgiveness has been one of the hot-button issues in the 2020 presidential election. It turns out that, by one measure, student debt is a big contributor to the wealth gap between white and black families.
An analysis by the Roosevelt Institute, a liberal think tank based in New York, found that white households headed by people between the ages of 25 and 40 have 12 times the amount of wealth on average as black households.
Yet without student debt, the ratio shrinks to just five times the amount of wealth, suggesting that student debt forgiveness could go a long way in reducing that gap (although it would still remain quite wide).
The average income for black Americans compared to white Americans has not changed much over the years.
The Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey includes questions about Americans’ incomes. Using CPS historical data, we found the average income earned per person by race.
In 2018, the average black American was earning roughly 60% of the average white American, and that ratio has been largely stable throughout the past two decades.
A big part of that income gap is the persistent and worsening wage gap between races. There has been a downward trend in recent years in the ratio of annual earnings for black Americans to those of white Americans.
Using Census data from the 2018 Income and Poverty in the United States report, which includes earnings tables by race, we were able to calculate the ratio of earnings for the average black household to those of the average white household since 1967.
In 2002 and earlier, respondents to the Census Current Population Survey could only report one race; respondents could choose more than one race starting in 2003. We used “white alone” and “black alone” data from 2002 onward.
Since 2001, there has been a decrease in what an average black employee makes compared to a white employee. In 2018, black workers were earning about 62% of what white workers made.
The wage gap is even wider for black women.
This calendar shows how long into the next year it would take the median woman in different racial and ethnic groups to earn as much as the median white man does in one year, based on wage estimates from 2017 compiled by the American Association of University Women.
The chart shows that it would have taken the typical black woman worker a total of 598 days to earn what the typical white male worker would earn in 365 days. That is, it would be 233 days into the next year for her to earn what he would make in one year.
The calendar shows the interplay between race and gender inequality in the US, and is another indicator of still-needed improvement.
In most large US cities, it’s harder for black children from poorer families to move up the economic ladder than for white children from similarly low-income families.
Using data from Opportunity Insights, a Harvard-based institute that works to better understand US social mobility, we looked at intergenerational mobility, defined as where in the income distribution the typical child born to parents in the 25th percentile of earners ended up as an adult in several large cities.
For their city-based analysis, Opportunity Insights focused on the commuting zones that had the largest black populations as of the 2000 decennial census.
Opportunity Insights considered children who were born between 1978 and 1983 and whose parents’ incomes fell below the average, specifically at the 25th percentile of the income distribution (that is, families that earned more than 25% of all families, but less than the remaining 75% of the population.)
They then looked at where in the income distribution those children ended up when they were 31 to 37 years old, compared to other children born in the same range of years.
In the 14 cities with the largest black populations, that income rank was higher for white children than black children using their 2014-2015 average earnings. This means that upward economic mobility was higher for white families than black families.
In New York, the commuting zone with the largest black population in 2000, there was a difference of 17 percentage points between where white and black children whose parents were at the 25th percentile ended up in the income distribution. Washington, DC, had the smallest difference among the 14 cities with the largest black populations, of about 11 percentage points.
Some socioeconomic areas have seen progress, however. The share of black students earning college degrees has continued to grow since the 1960s.
The number of black students earning degrees has continuously climbed over the years. The share of black Americans age 25 and over that had earned a degree from a four-year college was about 25% in 2018. In 2000, only about 16.5% of black Americans had earned degrees from a four-year college.
But challenges in educational opportunity remain. The percentage of black children earning a college degree among those whose parents only earned a high school diploma is low compared to other races.
Opportunity Insights also has data about intergenerational educational attainment by race. Specifically, Opportunity Insights looked at the share of children who earned a college degree who were born into families with parents who only earned a high school diploma.
The Opportunity Insights analysis comes from educational attainment data in the Census 2000 long form or 2005-2015 American Community Surveys for children born between 1978 and 1983, according to their data file description. Data for parents was collected using the 2000 Census and data for children was mainly collected from American Community Survey data. “Parental education” was based on the mother’s education if available, otherwise they used the father’s.
Black children of parents with just a high school diploma had the lowest share earning a bachelor’s degree at just 15.0%, while Asian students had the highest share at 48.9%. Meaning, there were more Asian children earning college degrees whose parents’ highest education was high school than any other race, followed by white children.
This means that it’s less likely for a child born into a low-education black family to earn a higher level of degree than their parents compared to a child in a low-education family of a different race. However, the researchers at Opportunity Insights noted in one of their research papers that education had little effect on the difference in upward income mobility between black and white Americans.
African-Americans are still underrepresented at the top of the corporate ladder. A 2019 report said there were just five black CEOS among Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies.
The report, from executive staffing firm Crist Kolder Associates, noted that while the share of CEOs of colour among America’s top corporations was at an all-time high, over 90% of the chief executives at the companies studied were white.
This strongly suggests that representation for people of colour, especially black Americans, remains elusive at the higher echelons of the corporate world.
Some progress has been made in the world of politics. The current 116th Congress is the most racially diverse yet.
Overall, Congress has become more diverse over time, according to the Pew Research Centre. Members of the House of Representatives during the current 116th Congress, who were sworn into office in January 2019, were part of the most diverse group as measured by several different factors, including race.
The current House boasts 54 African-American members, the highest number ever. The 100th Congress in 1987 had about half the current number of African-Americans, with only 23 black members of the House.