Black Americans have made considerable progress during the past two decades in reaching top positions in government, business, and the military. Colin Powell was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces and also Secretary of State, the third highest position in government, and has been followed at State by Condoleezza Rice. Richard Parsons is CEO of Time Warner, Kenneth Chenault is CEO of American Express, Stan O'Neal until recently was CEO of Merrill Lynch, and black men and women are heads too of other major American corporations. Barack Obama is making a credible run at becoming the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, and he is appealing not only to black and other minority voters, but also to a wide cross section of independent voters.
Obama's successful pursuit of the American presidency has appeared to provide closure to "The American Dilemma": this country's unsatisfactory relations with African American descendants of slaves, even though Obama himself has a white mother and an African father. Yet the political, governmental, and business success during the past few years of small numbers of blacks does not accurately measure the progress of typical African-American men and women. Education, earnings, and health gaps between whites and blacks did significantly narrow during the 40-year period from the end of World War II until the late 1980's. However, from then until the present, progress of blacks relative to whites has essentially stopped, leaving a still sizable distance between the circumstances of whites and blacks.
My colleague at the University of Chicago, Derek Neal, has documented many aspects of this slowdown in black progress (see his "Why has Black-White Skill Convergence Stopped?" in Handbook of the Economics of Education, Vol 1, 2006). He shows that the racial gap in average years of schooling for men in their late twenties was about 2 1/4 years in 1965, declined to less than a year in the 1980's, and basically remained at that level into this century. The schooling gap between young black and white women has been smaller than that for men, it also fell a lot until the mid-1980's, but if anything the gap has increased since then to become similar to the gap for young men. Related trends of considerable progress and then stagnation are found in racial gaps for high school and college graduation rates, and in teenager reading and math tests scores. Earnings of blacks and whites with the same years of schooling show similar patterns: convergence until the late 1980's, and mainly stable since then, although there are increased racial gaps in some education groups.
Differences in life expectancy and general health between blacks and whites followed similar trends. Black life expectancy narrowed until about twenty years ago, and then remained constant at about 6 years below that of whites. This means that life expectancy of blacks is comparable to mortality rates in the much poorer countries of Paraguay and Mexico. A large fraction of the racial difference in average length of life is due to differences in the incidence of cardiovascular diseases, life styles, and violent deaths. The economic literature on the statistical value of life shows that a typical white values a life year at over $120,000. A comparable analysis for typical American blacks would suggest that they value an additional life year at less than the figure for whites because black earnings are lower. If the value by blacks is about $100,000, the discounted value of the six-year lower life expectancy for blacks would be worth about $400,000. Since the discounted value over a lifetime of the racial gap in average annual earnings would be worth no more than $300,000, this calculation suggests that the racial gap in life expectancy is as important as the still considerable earnings shortfall of blacks.
Why did the progress of blacks stop well short of achieving full equality with whites, and is the slowdown during the past 20 years in black progress only temporary, or is it an indication of what the racial situation will be during the next few decades? The sharp slowdown is surprising mainly because institutionalized and personal discrimination against African-Americans has continued to fall into this century. Probably the most important offset to the decline in discrimination is the rapid growth since the 1960's in the fraction of black children raised in households with only one or no parents-these households also grew among whites, but at a much slower pace. Moreover, white single parent households mainly arise from a divorce between parents who had their children while married (or while living together), whereas never-married and quite young mothers raise many black children.
In addition, there is social pressure on young blacks growing up in segregated neighborhoods to engage in crime, including selling drugs, and to not "act white", where acting white sometime is taken to mean studying hard and investing in one's human capital. These pressures act more on black boys rather than girls, which help explain why the achievements of black women are much closer to those of white women than is the gap between black and white men.
It is too early to tell whether these and other forces that have prevented blacks from achieving full parity with whites are temporary or more long lasting. A disturbing fact is that growing up in families that invest less in their children casts a long shadow since children brought up in these families tend also to invest less in their children. This process gets to be repeated to some degree over subsequent generations.
Yet it may be possible to overcome to a considerable degree this intergenerational transmission of low status. The most promising approaches in my opinion involve self-help programs that encourage better choices in black communities, the legalization of drugs, personalized medicine that recognizes differences in vulnerabilities to disease between blacks and whites, head start type school programs, and school vouchers and charter schools that widen school choice and stimulate education innovations, On the whole, I am optimistic that some of these changes will be made, and hence that the convergence between blacks and whites will resume after the hiatus during the past 20 years, although it will probably be many decades before blacks achieve anything close to full parity with whites.