Black America Isn’t Nearly as Poor as Most White Americans Think, Liberals Included

Most white Americans simply cannot imagine there are Black or Hispanic neighborhoods with low crime, with high quality schools, with rising housing values, and that look well-kept.

— Michael O. Emerson

Look, if I’m honest, I’ve been a bit skeptical about the long-term benefit that will come from the massive push among college-educated whites this summer to read up on, talk about, and come to terms with their racial biases and those that infect the various sectors of our society. There are multi-million dollar mansions in my neighborhood with BLM signs in the yard and window; my thought is always, okay, but what else are you willing to do? You willing to pay twice the amount in taxes?

With all due respect to those making earnest efforts in this area, I’m not particularly optimistic about the practical outcomes of white people’s efforts trying to uncover and amend racism in themselves. Moral self-flagellation and the corresponding self-congratulation are not the main goal here. We need meaningful changes in public, corporate, institutional policy, some of which, thankfully, we have actually started to see in response to the BLM protests. Let’s hope that continues. My view is that it’s the policy debates that should be at the forefront of consciousness raising efforts.

All that said, I do think there are two extremely important biases that privileged white people like myself need to look hard at and address in themselves: (1) Their tendency to choose to live and shop in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods, and (2) their tendency to choose overwhelmingly white schools for their children to attend. These are areas where white bias actually has seriously damaging long-term consequences.

One of the things I have learned from living in Louisville and teaching in a majority non-white public school is that, even in my thirst for racial justice, I have at times shared some of this kind of bias: I have often assumed the worst of majority non-white neighborhoods and schools. I have often pitied them.

But with exposure I have also learned that there is WAY more diversity among African-Americans than most white people think, that there is actually a large and thriving black middle class right here in Louisville that most white people are almost completely unaware of and don’t understand, that many non-white majority neighborhoods or highly integrated neighborhoods are NOT in fact “crime-infested,” and that in spite of all this, even ostensibly progressive white people almost never willingly step foot in those parts of town (except in transit), are in fact quite terrified of being in those “ ‘hoods,” and are extremely disinclined to send their kids to schools with lots of brown kids.

Any non-white person reading this is probably like: no shit. But these largely subconscious biases are of course huge hurdles to real lasting progress towards racial equality. And Trump is blatantly trying to tap into and exacerbate these latent prejudices to squeak out an electoral college victory.

Thomas Edsall’s long piece in the Times a week ago — “Voters Seem to Think Biden Is the ‘Law and Order’ Candidate” – delves into a lot of this and is one of the most important articles I’ve read on the subject, providing some excellent data to bolster his case. I felt like it was definitely worth a share. Here’s the abridged version:

On Feb. 20, Time magazine asked Henry Louis Gates Jr… about America’s “missed opportunities for racial equality.” Gates replied: “One of the most dramatic shifts to the structure of the African-American community has been the doubling of the Black middle class and the quadrupling of the Black upper middle class since 1970.”

Gates was drawing attention to the fact that from 1995 to 2017, the number of Black Americans with advanced degrees — Masters, Ph.D., M.D. or J.D. — tripled, going from 677,000 to 2.1 million. Over the same period, the percentage of Black adults with college degrees more than doubled, from 11 to 24 percent.

William Julius Wilson… made a related observation in 2017: “One of the most significant changes in recent decades is the remarkable gain in income among more affluent blacks. When we adjust for inflation to 2014 dollars, the percentage of Black Americans earning at least $75,000 more than doubled from 1970 to 2014, to 21 percent. Those making $100,000 or more almost quadrupled to 13 percent (in contrast white Americans saw a less striking increase, from 11 to 26 percent).”

These gains have not been restricted to affluent Black Americans. Since 1966, two years after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the percentage of African-Americans with incomes below the poverty line has been halved, from more than 40 percent to 20.8 percent in 2018.

Decades of defamatory rhetoric from Donald Trump — as both citizen and president — notwithstanding, Black America is doing vastly better than it was before the advent of the civil rights movement.

[A] 2018 Economic Policy Institute report… found that “African Americans today are much better educated than they were in 1968” and that this development “has been accompanied by significant absolute improvements in wages, incomes, wealth, and health.” Take wages. “The inflation-adjusted hourly wage of the typical Black worker rose 30.5 percent between 1968 and 2016, or about 0.6 percent per year,” they write, three times the rate of the “slower real wage growth (about 0.2 percent per year) for the typical white worker.”

In a separate 2018 Institute for Family Studies report… Brad Wilcox, Ronald B. Mincy and Wendy Wang write: “More than one in two Black men (57 percent) have made it into the middle class or higher as adults today, up from 38 percent in 1960, according to a new analysis of census data. And the share of Black men who are poor has fallen from 41 percent in 1960 to 18 percent in 2016. So, a substantial share of Black men in America are realizing the American dream — at least financially — and a clear majority are not poor.”

The three authors elaborated in a commentary published by CNN: “Despite a portrait of race relations that often highlights the negative, especially regarding Black men, the truth is that most Black men will not be incarcerated, are not unemployed and are not poor.”

At the same time, there is a note of pessimism among those who study neighborhood and school segregation — and the logic of this pessimism, in turn, is crucial to understanding Trump’s strategy in the closing months of the 2020 campaign.

For nearly 40 years, Michael O. Emerson… has studied racial housing patterns. … He wrote me in an email: “Most white Americans simply cannot imagine there are Black or Hispanic neighborhoods with low crime, with high quality schools, with rising housing values, and that look well-kept. Despite the fact that there actually are such integrated neighborhoods that I have lived in myself, any mention of a high percentage Black or Hispanic (usually 30 percent or more) overwhelms their senses and emotions and signals ‘AVOID!’ no matter what else they are told about the neighborhood.”

It is just this bias that Trump is determined to exacerbate — to inflame — in his sustained attack on Joe Biden and the Democratic Party. Trump claims that Democratic efforts to increase affordable housing in the nation’s suburbs under the aegis of the 1968 Fair Housing Act “will destroy your neighborhood and your American dream. I will preserve it, and make it even better!”

Trump has repeatedly pressed this theme, as well as the related theme of what he calls “open borders.” At a July 15 briefing, Trump warned that “the left-wing group of people that are running our cities are not doing the job that they’re supposed to be doing.” … Four days later, Trump tweeted: “The Radical Left Democrats, who totally control Biden, will destroy our Country as we know it. Unimaginably bad things would happen to America. Look at Portland… Look at New York, Chicago, Philadelphia. NO!”

Trump’s political specialty is provoking and exacerbating subliminal or latent anxiety — and this probing is especially disruptive in the context of racial tensions that have surfaced in the aftermath of recent police killings of unarmed Black men.

Douglas Massey… has dedicated much of his work to understanding the prejudices Trump is trying to tap into. In … January, Massey wrote that: “In the minds of some whites, the mere presence of blacks denotes lower property values, higher crime rates, and struggling schools, irrespective of what the objective neighborhood conditions actually are. Although whites say they would welcome the presence of Black neighbors, in practice they avoid neighborhoods containing more than a few blacks and confine their search to overwhelmingly white residential areas exhibiting white percentages well above those they offer in describing their ‘ideal’ neighborhood to survey researchers.”

Robert Sampson, a professor of social science at Harvard, emailed me his views on the barriers facing those who work toward greater neighborhood diversity — barriers Trump seeks to raise and multiply: “Our research has shown that perceptions of disorder in a community are highly influenced by the racial composition of that community…” Minority communities, Sampson argues, when compared to white communities with similar levels of school quality, crime and other measures “were rated much higher in multiple aspects of social and physical disorder, and interestingly, this pattern held for both blacks and whites.”

In light of these often unacknowledged attitudes, the question becomes: Can Trump eke out an Election Day victory by focusing attention and capitalizing politically on the looting and fire-setting associated with some of the Black Lives Matter protests spurred by the police killing of Floyd and other African-Americans?

Emerson… is deeply worried about bigotry, writing in an email: “The protests — when they turn violent as shown on many newscasts — are reinforcing white negative stereotypes about African-Americans (even though often it seems white folks are involved in the violence), preserving the wedge between groups, and because they signify losing the moral high ground, are severely curtailing what momentum there was.”

Emerson asks whether “more whites will vote for Trump because of these violent aspects of the protests. The protests are giving whites, in a sense, ‘permission’ to do so.” …

Massey shares Emerson’s concern over possible repercussions from the televised disorder and violence at some Black Lives Matter demonstrations. “Unfortunately, the stereotype of Blacks as lawless and violent persists in U.S. culture and permeates American social cognition, both explicitly and implicitly,” Massey wrote in an email. “So yes, to the extent that media reports (and especially images) link Black protesters to street violence, it reinforces negative stereotypes and creates animus against the Black Lives Matter movement and those who support it.”

This is especially true “with the Republican base,” Massey continued; whether “it will turn white suburbanites against the Democrats is a possibility, but not a given.” That will be determined by “the degree to which voters see Trump as being the instigator-in-chief and responsible for inciting the violence, or instead blame the B.L.M. demonstrators themselves.”

In fact, many voters do perceive Trump as the “instigator-in-chief.” For that reason, Robert Sampson was more cautious in his estimate of the potential for Trump to make political gains by focusing on the violence and destruction associated with some of the protests…

The May 25 killing of George Floyd — captured on video — prompted a surge of support for Black Lives Matter. Polling conducted by Civiqs shows that more whites opposed Black Lives Matter than supported the organization from April 2017 to the start of May 2020. But by early June, a week after the Floyd killing, white opinion shifted strongly, to 44 percent approval of the movement and 34 percent disapproval.

In the weeks since then, as the media and the Trump campaign have focused on the violent conflict in Washington D.C.PortlandSeattle and, more recently, Kenosha, Wis., white attitudes toward Black Lives Matter have returned to pre-Floyd levels, according to the Civiqs data, 46 percent opposed, 40 percent in support.

From that perspective, the trends would appear to be moving in a direction favorable to Trump. But Trump continues to trail Biden in head-to-head surveys. Unlike Nixon or Bush, Trump’s appeals to law and order have not yet paid off in the polls.

Why not?I think my colleague Ron Brownstein may have pinpointed the reason Trump has had trouble capitalizing on the violence…: “The biggest problem with Trump running on restoring order is that his performance in office has caused many voters to view him as the candidate of disorder.” …

An August 27-28 Yahoo/YouGov survey asked registered voters “which comes closest to your view, ‘Trump will protect us from the chaos’ or ‘Trump is the source of the chaos’?” 30 percent chose protect and 50 percent said Trump was the source of chaos. … A more recent September 2-4 CBS News survey asked whether Biden and Trump are “trying to calm the situation down” or “trying to encourage fighting.” By 49-30, voters said Biden was trying to calm the situation while, in the case of Trump, voters said he was trying to encourage fighting by 47-39.

Between now and the election, let’s just hope those Biden-friendly poll numbers hold. Down the road a little farther, my fellow white folks, let’s make a more conscious effort to live in integrated neighborhoods, patronize minority-owned businesses, and ultimately send our kids to integrated public schools. The fear you feel is mostly a lie.

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