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Black Anxiety and Intergenerational Inequality
06.18.2018
Tags: Income Race

A pair of recent studies, taken together, illustrates the real and perceived experiences of black Americans concerning educational disparities, heightened racial tensions, and the future prospects of their children. These studies not only highlight disparities between black and white Americans in actual economic outcomes, but also in support for policies that mitigate these inequalities.

Black boys raised in the wealthiest families and poshest neighborhoods are more likely to live in poverty as adults than white kids from similar backgrounds, according to a rigorous new longitudinal study by a consortium of researchers from Stanford, Harvard, and the Census Bureau. This study, “Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States: An Intergenerational Perspective,” finds that even when starting from the same rung, black boys are more likely than white boys to fail to climb the ladder, or to slip down as adults.

Black boys have the best outcomes and experience the smallest gaps in income inequality compared with their white counterparts, according to the researchers, when they grow up in neighborhoods with low rates of poverty and racial bias, and have high rates of father presence. Black men who have grown up with these conditions earn more and are less likely to be incarcerated, the study found.

At first glance, PRRI’s 2017 survey, “Attitudes on Child and Family Wellbeing: National and Southeast/Southwest Perspectives,” suggests that there might be significant common ground between black and white Americans on the issue of kids’ wellbeing. Eighty-two percent of blacks and 76 percent of whites agree that “as the number of black and other minority children continues to grow, our economic future depends on helping children from these communities be successful.”

Despite this general agreement about shared fates, however, the survey also finds that blacks and whites differ sharply in their priorities and opinions about the concrete issues researchers say contribute to vastly different outcomes for black and white boys.

Blacks are considerably more likely than whites to feel the following issues are critical to them personally: children living in poverty (79 percent vs. 56 percent); ensuring all children have equal opportunities to succeed (74 percent vs. 48 percent); and race relations (59 percent vs. 32 percent). And according to another PRRI survey from 2017, the vast majority (87 percent) of black Americans, compared with 49 percent of white Americans, agree that blacks experience substantial discrimination in the United States today.

These differences go much deeper than dueling policy positions. In fact, there are divergent values on whether the existence of inequalities among children matters or not. Thirty-seven percent of whites, compared with 16 percent of blacks, think, “It is not really that big a problem if some people have more of a chance in life than others,” according to PRRI.

There is an additional chasm as to what, if any, moral obligation exists to address these inequalities. Blacks are significantly more likely than whites to agree that “the only way to make sure that children living in poverty have a chance to succeed in life is to provide more assistance to their parents” (78 percent vs. 48 percent). Notably, blacks are more than four times as likely as whites to completely agree with this statement (42 percent vs. 10 percent). A majority (51 percent) of whites mostly or completely disagree with this statement, compared with about one in five (22 percent) blacks.

While majorities of both black and white Americans agree that “we have a moral responsibility to make sure that every child in the U.S. has an opportunity to succeed” (93 percent and 87 percent, respectively), there is a notable intensity gap on this question. Sixty-nine percent of blacks, compared with only 42 percent of whites, completely agree.

Together, these studies illustrate the challenging terrain. Because of existing structural inequalities, equal starting points still do not translate to comparable outcomes in the lives of black and white boys. And while a majority of whites can see they have a shared interest in a more equitable future for non-white kids when these links are made explicit, they remain less invested than blacks in both policies that address these inequalities and the moral imperative of doing so. If progress is to be made closing toward these gaps, all parties have to see these inequalities as a shared affliction rather than a problem relegated to an isolated segment of society.