07 February 2006

The Rise Of The Black Middle Class

Civil rights and racial equality haven't made a lot of headlines in the past couple of decades, and the recent ones have generally been bad news. The Civil Rights Acts were passed. We are reminded today with the death of Coretta Scott King of the civil rights movement leaders who passed. School desegregation has quietly been dismantled. And, affirmative action has faced pitched legal challenges, and has been dismantled in states like Texas and California.

But, school desegregation, affirmative action, bans on racial discrimination in the workplace and other contexts, and the benefits the children of the first post-segregation generation has received from growing up in the more prosperous households that their parents achieved has produced more results than most people realize.

The percentage of managerial and professional jobs in this country filled by blacks has gone from 5.6% in 1983, when blacks made up 9.3% of the workforce, to 8.3% in 2001, when blacks made up 11.3% of the workforce. This isn't perfect equality, but going from being 40% underrepresented to 27% underrepresented, in the managerial and professional sector, in an eighteen year period, despite the fact that many of these professions take many years to receive the necessary education to enter, is progress.

Gains have been even more pronounced in many high end managerial and professional posts. In many professions (and other relatively high end occupations), the proportion of people in the profession who are black has almost doubled in eighteen years.

Executive and Managers Overall 4.7% to 7.9%
Public Officials 8.3% to 14.5%
Financial Managers 3.5% to 6.6%
Personnel Managers 4.9% to 11.4%
Purchasing Managers 5.1% to 8.9%
Accountants 5.5% to 9.5%
Architects 1.6% to 3.1%
Engineers 2.7% to 5.5%
Operations Researchers 4.9% to 10.5%
Natural Scientists 2.6% to 4.8% (including Chemists 4.3% to 8.7%)
Physicians 3.2% to 5.6%
Respiratory Therapists 6.5% to 13.3%
College Professors 4.4% to 6.1%
Economists 6.3% to 9.6%
Clergy 4.9% to 10.7%
Lawyers and Judges 2.7% to 5.3%
Authors 2.1% to 5.0%
Musicians and Composers 7.9% to 14.7%
Painters and Sculptors 2.1% to 5.1%
Insurance Sales 3.8% to 8.1%
Real Estate Sales 1.3% to 5.2%
Securities and Financial Services Sales 3.1% to 6.9%
Protective Service Supervisors (Police and Fire) 7.7% to 17.3%
Firefighting 6.7% to 12.3%

The only large area of the economy that has seen a significant drop in the percentage of blacks employed is farming, foresty and fishing, where the percentage of black employees has gone from 7.5% to 5.0%. The proportion of farm operators and managers who are black is down 30%, and the proportion of lumberjacks who are black has fallen from 12.8% to 7.4%. No doubt blacks employed in those fields have gone onto bigger and better things, by and large.

Blacks and whites alike have made big gains in educational attainment in this time frame as well, with blacks closing the gap which does still exist. In 1980, 68.8% of adult whites and 51.2% of adult blacks were high school graduates (26% less). In 2000, 84.9% of whites and 78.5% of blacks were (8% less). In 1980, 17.1% of adult whites were college graduates, while 8.4% of blacks were (50% less). In 2000, 26.1% of white adults were college graduates, while 16.5% of blacks were (37% less). Indeed, essentially all of black underrepresentation in the managerial and professional class (although not necessarily in particular professions) is attributable to a deficit in blacks who have graduated from college.

Blacks in the United States are still more likely to have lower end jobs than whites. But, the gains made in less than eighteen years have been remarkable and widespread. The numbers also point the way towards closing that gap even further, which is to increase the percentage of black children who graduate from college.

The numbers also cast real doubt on the claims of those, like the authors of the book, "The Bell Curve", who identify claimed differences in intelligence between the races, as what is, on average, holding back black economic progress. If the problems were that innate, you wouldn't see such dramatic changes in less than a generation.

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