Taking Stock on Race and Economics

Forty Years Later: The Unrealized American Dream
Institute for Policy Studies, Washington D.C., April 2008.

Economic Mobility of Black and White Families
Brookings Institution, Washington D.C., November 13, 2007. (PDF)

Forty years have passed since the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., and “The Unrealized American Dream” draws on the Biblical imagery of Israelites wandering through the desert for forty years to consider whether African Americans have reached the Promised Land. In some ways yes. Educational achievement has skyrocketed, so that now 81 percent of African Americans over 25 graduate from high-school (2.5 times the figure in 1968), as compared to 91 percent for whites. Still, while college graduation levels have increased fourfold for African Americans, only 19 percent are currently college graduates, as compared to 31 percent for whites.

Brute economics shows a sorrier picture. The rate of African American children in poverty dropped only a quarter-of-a-percent annually since 1968, and the racial wage gap barely shifted in that period, with African Americans earning 54 percent of whites’ earnings in 1968, to African Americans earning 57 percent of whites’ earnings in 2008. African Americans’ incomes have increased 1.5 times overall.

Brookings’ report on “Economic Mobility of Black and White Families” compares parents’ earnings at 40 with their children’s when they are the same age, and breaks the data down by race. A methodological side note: The data could underreport children’s earnings because they are more likely to have a shorter workforce experience since they leave school later.

Key findings: For middle-income families, only one-third of black children end up in families with higher incomes than their parents, while two-thirds of whites do. Seventy three percent of blacks from low-income families earn more than their parents, but blacks at higher income levels generally earn less than their parents.

While median incomes for both black and white men have decreased, the incomes of both black and white women significantly increased, leading to an overall growth in family incomes. Also, family structures have changed significantly between 1969 and 1999 with more blacks and whites living in single person households and single parent households. These numbers show that family incomes would have increased more if family structures had not changed at the same time (tending towards smaller families), and that any direct comparisons between incomes in black households and white households are misleading unless they account for the differences in family structures.

Two-thirds of both blacks and whites earn more than their parents, yet median family incomes for whites in their 30s rose 19 percent over the 30 year period and only ten percent for blacks. Even more troubling are the numbers showing that 24 percent of blacks live in families below the federal poverty threshold (down from 39.3 percent in 1967), while that figure is 8.3 percent for whites (down from 11 percent).

– Aaron Rothbaum


Other Reports in Review


Military Truths
The Truth Behind the Camouflage: A Youth Investigation into the Myths and Truths of Military Recruitment and Military Service
American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, San Francisco, Fall 2007. (PDF)

“Our purpose was to educate ourselves so we could educate others and make a difference,” opens this amazing document created by 23 high school students in August 2007. They talked with veterans, military recruiters (past and present), conscientious objectors and others, creating artwork, poetry and prose, and preparing themselves to present their findings to other young people in Northern California. The project looks like a great model for other organizers.

The students introduce the groups they visited over each of the eight days of the project, so the report serves as a guidebook to counterrecruiting resources. Like Alberto Gomez, they also reflect on their visits. In “The Military Recruiter,” Gomez writes of visiting a charismatic Navy recruiter in a mall: “Even if I knew that he might be telling lies, it still sounded so good — money for college, job training, traveling. What made me scared was if I had been in that office alone with the recruiter, I swear I would have joined. He really just made it sound so good, like a guarantee for success. And that’s what a lot of us dream about.”

Alysha Aziz wrote a poem “3635 (The number of American soldiers killed in Iraq as of August 12, 2007, the last day of our trip)”:

It’s just a number really.
Just a cold, abstract number that
I can file away with all the other
numbers I learned in history, algebra,
and statistics.
And yet, as she shows us the picture of her
smiling son, killed in
Iraq, suddenly,
that number begins to pulse, and breathe,
and laugh, and smile,
and dream….
I want people to realize what just one
combat death looks like,
feels like, tastes like.
Because maybe then we will stop unjustly
blowing apart countries,
Blowing apart families,
Blowing apart people…

–Abby Scher


Legalized Unionbusting
Neither Free Nor Fair: The Subversion of Democracy Under NLRB Elections
By Gordon Lafer, American Rights at Work, Washington, D.C, July 2007.

Nearly one-third of nonunionized workers want to be members of a union. One key reason they are not is the intimidating process governing union elections. In 2005, American Rights at Work’s “Free and Fair?” report by Gordon Lafer drew on the founding fathers and other political philosophers to show the gap between the democracy we expect in political life and the laws governing union elections. This follow-up delves into how employers intimidate workers and deny their free speech rights in the workplace thanks to the practices and rules of the National Labor Relations Board — the federal agency governing union elections.

Employers regularly break the rules governing elections because there are few sanctions against them and their overriding goal is to avoid any election at all. But they largely don’t have to break the rules to stop a union. Bosses hire union busting advisors who write scripts for supervisors who hold intimidating, but perfectly legal, one-on-one discussions with workers to determine whether the employee is pro-union. They plaster their worksites with anti-union posters — again perfectly legal — while workers aren’t allowed to post any signs or talk to union organizers in the parking lot. Employers stalk prounion workers, gluing supervisors to them during the course of their workday, and even sending goons out to follow union activists. And they fire prounion workers — this is not legal, but it is done with impunity since employers need only provide backpay if they are caught and proven guilty before the NLRB.

This report is most valuable as an exposé of advice and tactics from so-called “union avoidance” consultants. Their advice runs from holding captive meetings, to what to look for: “Supervisors should not spend time looking for union buttons or bumper stickers, one advisor warns; by the time these are visible, it will be too late… Under the heading of ‘Signs of Union Activity You Should Watch For and Report,’ [an advisor] warns that ‘employees receiving new or unusual attention from other employees’ may be a dangerous omen.” But the tactics can be crude and illegal. A disgruntled employer’s suit against advisor Jackson Lewis reveals it advised this South Carolina manufacturer to spy on workers, fire activists, create front committees of “anti-union” workers, fake derogatory flyers supposedly from the union, and offer bribes.

– Abby Scher


There is an Alternative
Over-Raided, Under Siege: U.S. Immigration Laws and Enforcement Destroy the Rights of Immigrants
By Sheila Chung Hagen, Human Rights Immigrant Community Action Network: Oakland, California, January 2008.

The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR) has accomplished something only an organization of its kind can do. It created HURRICANE, the Human Rights Immigrant Community Action Network, to collect and analyze incidents of immigrant rights violations from across the country. Member groups in the network helped identify these incidents, and the 100 Stories Project forms the core of this report. Reading through the stories leaves the reader with evidence of widespread government “collective punishment” of immigrants.

Reviewing these stories, the report concludes that:

  • ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Bureau, uses raids as a political response to immigrant rights activism;
  • Immigrants in detention centers, some run by private companies, are the fastest growing prison population in the country;
  • Homeland Security uses employers as enforcement agents, using Social Security ‘no match’ letters to arrest immigrants on felony “identity theft” charges;
  • The southern border has been militarized to the extent that it has created a humanitarian crisis;
  • Homeland Security has invited local law enforcement to collaborate with them in apprehending undocumented residents.

These incidents are powerful enough individually; as a collection, they provide the evidence policymakers need to correct past wrongdoings. Among the report’s eleven recommendations: end immigration raids and racial, religious, and ethnic profiling; stop the expansion of guest worker programs; provide funding for immigration services; and pass an immigration reform bill that honestly deals with current problems.

– Pam Chamberlain


Transgender Politics
Opening the Door to the Inclusion of Transgender People: The Nine Keys to Making Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Organizations Fully Transgender-Inclusive
by Lisa Mottet and Justin Tanis, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, Washington, D.C., 2008.

A recent thorny issue for LGBT groups is the realization that they want to work for transgender inclusiveness but have few trans people in their memberships or on their staffs and boards. Two such national organizations have joined forces to publish a manual on how to include transgender people in authentic ways into activist and social organizations.

This has real consequences because the lack of unity with the LGBT movement about whether to fight for including transgender people in ENDA, the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, contributed to its defeat in 2007. (Of course, rightwing organizing also was rampant: Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, master of fearmongering, called the bill “dangerous” and transpeople “gender confused individuals” and “she-males.”)

With its detailed suggestions for LGBT organizations to become more trans-inclusive, the reports also provides models for other types of organizations that recognize they, too, must come to terms with inclusion issues.

– Pam Chamberlain


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Summer 2008
Vol. 23, No. 2 :



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