Black History: Why 1968 Reminds Us to Take a Reality Check in 2018

This year’s Black History Month is a poignant time in American history. While there is much pride in the history of African Americans and the progress in our community, racial inequality remains a dominant socio-economic reality for most Black Americans.

The Black unemployment rate of 7.7% shows a significant decline from its Great Recession peak, but that’s still double the White unemployment rate, and 7.7% unemployment would still signify a recession for the general population. Despite the President’s willingness to tout declining Black unemployment, he still finds it appropriate to refer to Black nations as “shithole” countries.

African American wealth has rebounded from its record low of $1,700 in 2013, but a median wealth of $3,400 still leaves most African Americans in asset poverty and far behind the median wealth of White households, which stands at $140,500.

Do these facts confirm the dominant narrative about African Americans and racial inequality—that although we are not where we want to be, we are heading in the right direction?

A more thoughtful reflection of our current reality makes me less optimistic. Nearly fifty years ago, on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. Dr. King’s death marked the end of what is commonly referred to as the mid-20th century “Civil Rights Movement,” which was marred by inadequate action to reverse the economic discrepancies between Whites and Blacks. The national memory of Dr. King is one of a dreamer who helped the nation overcome its original sin of racism and White supremacy. By 1968, however, we do not see a triumphant reformer, but rather an increasingly marginalized community leader who was reckoning with the idea that his 1963 dream had turned into a nightmare. In his 1967 book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. King wrote:

“Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains? The majority of White Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately, this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.”

Those who deny the seriousness and depth of racial economic inequality today continue “the fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity” and hinder progress towards equal opportunity for all. For Black History Month, it would benefit us all to re-examine the critical year of 1968 and study the socio-economic conditions of African Americans today so we have a better understanding of what was achieved and what we still must struggle for.

This is why we have prepared a racial wealth snapshot of African Americans, which highlights the stark inequality the persists today. The snapshot arms advocates with crucial information to follow through with the struggles of over 50 years ago. This is the first of a series of snapshots that will provide fast facts on America’s racial wealth divide.

Racial Wealth Snapshot: African Americans

African Americans and the Racial Wealth Divide

As one of the largest ethnic groups in our country, African Americans trace their roots in the US back to the early 17th century. Over the centuries, African Americans have played an outsized role in building the economy, albeit through both voluntary labor and enslavement. Today, African American workers still face the steep uphill climb resulting from centuries of racist policies and practices designed to privilege White Americans. This snapshot documents some of the ways the African American community continues to be socially and economically marginalized.


Americans are, as their name suggests, those with ancestry tracing back to the African continent, usually with ancestors who were part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. There are over 46 million African Americans residing in the United States, with the population expected to comprise nearly 18% of the total population by 2060. With 3.8 million Black residents, New York has the highest population of African Americans. California, Texas, Florida and Georgia each claim more than two million African American residents. More than half of African Americans (54%) live in the Southern US, while 19% live in the Midwest, 18% in the Northeast and 10% in the West.


The annual median income of African American households is $36,544—far lower than the national average of $55,775. Greater disparities are revealed when comparing African Americans with other racial groups. White households earn an average of $71,300, while Asian American households earn an average of $77,900. In other words, both White and Asian American households earn more than twice as much, on average, than African American households.

Poverty Rates

More than one in four (26.2%) African Americans live below the poverty line, compared to an overall poverty rate of 14.8% and a White poverty rate of nine percent. Nearly two in five (38%) Black children live in poverty, compared to 22% of all children in the US.

Employment and Unemployment

Among all communities of color, African American workers have the highest unemployment rate. As of January 2018, the African American unemployment rate was 7.7%, nearly twice the national average unemployment rate of 4.9%. By comparison, unemployment rates stand at five percent for Hispanic workers, 3.5% for White workers and three percent for Asian American workers.

Educational Achievement

In general, African American students attend the lowest-performing school districts and have significantly lower test scores than students nationally. Only 18% of African American fourth-graders were proficient in reading and only 19% were proficient in math, compared to national averages for reading and math proficiency among all fourth-grade students of 36% and 40%, respectively. When it comes to completing high school, 91% of African Americans have earned their high school diploma. By comparison, 97% of Asian Americans, 95% of White Americans and 81% of Hispanic Americans have attained at least a high school diploma. These disparities expand when students enter higher education. While the college graduation rate for White students stands at 62%, only 42% of African Americans earn a college degree.


While the wage and income gaps between African Americans and their White counterparts are wide, the racial wealth divide between these groups is even more pronounced. Black median household wealth is at $3,4000 compared to $140,055 for White households, meaning African Americans have about two percent the wealth of Whites. Much of this can be attributed to disparities in homeownership, as housing is known to make up two-thirds of a typical household’s wealth. However, discrimination in employment also plays a significant role. Access to quality jobs and safe, affordable homeownership are key to boosting the financial security of African American households.

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