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Opinion | Why Did Racial Progress Stall in America?

In the popular narrative of American history, Black Americans made essentially no measurable progress toward equality with white Americans until the lightning-bolt changes of the civil rights revolution. If that narrative were charted along the course of the 20th century, it would be a flat line for decades, followed by a sharp, dramatic upturn toward equality beginning in the 1960s: the shape of a hockey stick.

In many ways, this hockey stick image of racial inequality is accurate. Until the banning of de jure segregation and discrimination, very little progress was made in many domains: representation in politics and mainstream media, job quality and job security, access to professional schools and careers or toward residential integration.

However, on a number of other measures, the shape of the trend is surprisingly different. In our book, “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again,” we examine century-long data, tracking outcomes by race in health, education, income, wealth and voting. What we found surprised us.

In terms of material well-being, Black Americans were moving toward parity with white Americans well before the victories of the civil rights era. What’s more, after the passage of civil rights legislation, those trends toward racial parity slowed, stopped and even reversed. Understanding how and why not only reveals why America is so fractured today, but illuminates the path forward, toward a more perfect union.

In measure after measure, positive change for Black Americans was actually faster in the decades before the civil rights revolution than in the decades after. For example,

  • The life expectancy gap between Black and white Americans narrowed most rapidly between about 1905 and 1947, after which the rate of improvement was much more modest. And by 1995 the life expectancy ratio was the same as it had been in 1961. There has been some progress in the ensuing two decades, but this is due in part to an increase in premature deaths among working-class whites.

  • The Black/white ratio of high school completion improved dramatically between the 1940s and the early 1970s, after which it slowed, never reaching parity. College completion followed the same trajectory until 1970, then sharply reversed.

  • Racial integration in K-12 education at the national level began much earlier than is often believed. It accelerated sharply in the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education. But this trend leveled off in the early 1970s, followed by a modest trend toward resegregation.

  • Income by race converged at the greatest rate between 1940 and 1970. However, as of 2018, Black/white income disparities were almost exactly the same as they were in 1968, 50 years earlier. Even taking into account the emergence of the Black middle class, Black Americans on the whole have experienced flat or downward mobility in recent decades.

  • The racial gap in homeownership steadily narrowed between 1900 and 1970, then stagnated, then reversed. The racial wealth gap is now growing as Black homeownership plummets.

  • Long-run data on national trends in voting by race is patchy, but the South saw a dramatic increase in Black voter registration between 1940 and 1970, followed by decline and stagnation. What data we have on national Black voter turnout indicate that nearly all of the gains toward equality with white voter turnout occurred between 1952 and 1964, before the Voting Rights Act passed, then almost entirely halted for the rest of the century.

These data reveal a too-slow but unmistakable climb toward racial parity throughout most of the century that begins to flatline around 1970 — a picture quite unlike the hockey stick of historical shorthand.

We draw attention to the unexpected shape and timing of these trends not as an attempt to argue that things are or were better for Black Americans than they might appear. Quite the contrary. Gains on the part of Black Americans — though clear and surprisingly steady during the first two-thirds of the 20th century — were due almost entirely to their fleeing the South by the millions during the Great Migration. Starting new lives in cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia meant access to better health care, education and economic opportunities. But these destinations, too, were characterized by a persistent reality of exclusion, segregation and racial violence. It was Black Americans’ undaunted faith in the promise of the American “we,” and their willingness to claim their place in it, against all odds, that won them progress between the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s and the end of the civil rights movement in the 1970s. Collectively, these migrants and their children and grandchildren steadily narrowed the Black-white gap over those years.

In the last half-century, however, that collective progress has halted, and many who fought so hard for this progress have now lived to see it reversed. U.W. Clemon, an African-American lawyer who won a precedent-setting Alabama school desegregation case over 40 years ago — and recently took up a remarkably similar legal battle in the same county — summarized the historical arc well, saying “I never envisioned that I would be fighting in 2017 essentially the same battle that I thought I won in 1971.”

It is against this backdrop of stillborn hopes and intergenerational reversals that Black Lives Matter protesters have taken to the streets. The recent police killings have undoubtedly been sparks in the dry tinder boxes of over-policed Black communities. But those communities are also situated within a parched landscape of stagnant progress toward racial parity, half a century after the passage of landmark Civil Rights legislation, and a century and a half after Reconstruction. What to many white Americans are mere charts and graphs, to Black Americans are the contours of their genealogy.

But if Black Americans’ advance toward parity with whites in many dimensions had been underway for decades before the Civil Rights revolution, why then, when the dam of legal exclusion finally broke, didn’t those trends accelerate toward full equality? Why was the last third of the 20th century characterized by a marked deceleration of progress, and in some cases even a reversal?

We have two answers to these questions.

The first is simple and familiar: White backlash. Substantial progress toward white support for Black equality was made in the first half of the 20th century, but when push came to shove, many white Americans were reluctant to live up to those principles. Although clear majorities supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a national poll conducted shortly after its passage showed that 68 percent of Americans wanted moderation in its enforcement. In fact, many felt that the Johnson administration was moving too fast in implementing integration.

Lyndon B. Johnson’s rejection, in 1968, of the Kerner Commission’s recommendations of sweeping reforms to address racial inequality suggested that his fine-tuned political sensitivity had detected a sea change in white attitudes in the year since he — more than any previous president — had led the project of racial redress. This was a dramatic example of deliberate acceleration followed by deliberate deceleration, a pattern which mirrored the abandonment of Reconstruction.

And it is in that earlier period of American history where the second answer to the question of why racial progress stagnated after the civil rights era can be found, as made clear by new statistical evidence we present in “The Upswing.”

On the heels of Reconstruction came a period that Southerners called “redemption,” a violent project on the part of vanquished Southern elites to restore white hegemony in the wake of the progress Black Americans had made after the Civil War. Redemption coincided with the vast upheaval of industrialization and urbanization, when the United States more broadly plunged into the Gilded Age. Gross extremes of wealth and poverty, a tattered social fabric rife with factionalism and nativism, a gridlocked public square and a culture of narcissism were its hallmarks. The late 1800s was thus, by nearly every measure — including the stark retrenchment of nascent racial equality — the worst of times.

But as the century turned and the Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era, America experienced a remarkable moment of inflection that set the nation on an entirely new trajectory. A diverse group of reformers grabbed the reins of history and set a course toward greater economic equality, political bipartisanship, social cohesion and cultural communitarianism. This shift and the long-run trends it set in motion are detailed in scores of statistical measures in “The Upswing.”

Some six decades later all of those upward trends reversed, setting the United States on a downward course that has brought us to the multifaceted national crisis in which we find ourselves today, which bears a remarkable resemblance to the Gilded Age. The wide array of statistical evidence compiled in “The Upswing” — ranging from the distribution of income pre- and post-taxes to bipartisanship in Congress and split-ticket voting and from civic engagement, church membership and social trust to parents’ choice of their children’s first names — shows that the Progressive Era represented a fundamental turning point in American history.

These interconnected phenomena can be summarized in a single meta-trend that we have come to call the “I-we-I” curve: An inverted U charting America’s gradual climb from self-centeredness to a sense of shared values, followed by a steep descent back into egoism over the next half century.

The moment America took its foot off the gas in rectifying racial inequalities largely coincides with the moment America’s “we” decades gave way to the era of “I.” At the mid-’60s peak of the I-we-I curve, long-delayed moves toward racial inclusion had raised hopes for further improvements, but those hopes went unrealized as the whole nation shifted toward a less egalitarian ideal.

A central feature of America’s “I” decades has been a shift away from shared responsibilities toward individual rights and a culture of narcissism. Economic inequality has skyrocketed, and along with it have come massive disparities in political influence and a growing concentration of political-economic power in the hands of a few billionaires. Polarization and social isolation have increased. Whatever sense of belonging Americans feel today is largely to factional (and often racially defined) in-groups locked in fierce competition with one another for cultural control and perceived scarce resources. Contemporary identity politics characterizes an era that could well be described as a “War of the ‘We’s’.” This is a reality that predated the election of Donald Trump, though his presidency threw it into sharp relief. And a new presidential administration will not by itself restore American unity.

It is difficult to say which came first — white backlash against racial realignment or the broader shift from “we” to “I.” Perhaps America’s larger turn toward “I” was simply a response to the challenge of sustaining a more diverse, multiracial “we” in an environment of deep, embedded and unresolved racism. But it is also possible that a broader societal turn away from shared responsibilities to one another eroded the fragile national consensus around race as all Americans began to prioritize their own interests above the common good. A selfish, fragmented “I” society is not a fertile soil for racial equality.

Indeed, the fact that landmark civil rights legislation passed at the very peak of the I-we-I curve suggests that an expanding sense of “we” was a prerequisite for the dismantling of the color line. Without what the historian Bruce Schulman calls the “expansive, universalist vision” that America had been building toward in the preceding decades, it is hard to imagine that such watershed change — so long and so violently resisted — would have been possible.

Through the “long civil rights movement,” as it has come to be called, Black activists had prevailed upon the white establishment to widen the “we” in important (though ultimately insufficient) ways across many decades. By the late 1960s, though the work of widening was not nearly complete, America had come closer to an inclusive “we” than ever before. But just as that inclusion began to bear tangible fruit for Black Americans, much of that fruit began to die on the vine.

The lessons of America’s I-we-I century are thus twofold. First, we Americans have gotten ourselves out of a mess remarkably similar to the one we’re in now by rediscovering the spirit of community that has defined our nation from its inception. America has turned the tide from “I” to “we” once before and we can do it again. And, to a greater extent than heretofore recognized, we made more rapid progress toward racial parity during the communitarian epoch than during the period of increasing individualism that followed.

But “we” can be defined in more inclusive or exclusive terms. The “we” we were constructing in the first two-thirds of the last century was highly racialized, and thus contained the seeds of its own undoing. Any attempt we may make today to spark a new upswing must aim for a higher summit by being fully inclusive, fully egalitarian and genuinely accommodating of difference. Anything less will fall victim once again to its own internal inconsistencies.

As Theodore Roosevelt put it, “the fundamental rule in our national life — the rule which underlies all others — is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together.”

Shaylyn Romney Garrett is a founding contributor to Weave: The Social Fabric Project. Robert D. Putnam is the Malkin Research Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University. They are co-authors of “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.”

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