Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Dreaming of someday getting to average

When black policy types let themselves dream about racial uplift, they dream about getting to average. The fantasy isn't that inequality vanishes; it's that inequality in black America catches up with inequality in white America. And, for the moment, a fantasy is all it is. Since the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the black middle class has increased significantly, yet the percentage of black children living in poverty has hovered between 30 and 40 percent.

"Look at what we could achieve if we got to be average!" Franklin Raines, the CEO of Fannie Mae, told me. "We don't need to take everybody from the ghetto and make them Harvard graduates. We just need to get folks to average, and we'd all look around and say, "My God, what a fundamental change has happened in this country.' "

How big a change? He's done the math. "If America had racial equality in education and jobs, African-Americans would have 2-million more high school degrees, 2-million more college degrees, nearly 2-million more professional and managerial jobs, and nearly $200-billion more income," he pointed out in a speech. "If America had racial equality in housing, 3-million more Americans would own their own homes. And if America had racial equality in wealth, African-Americans would have $760-billion more in equity value, $200-billion more in the stock market, $120-billion more in their retirement funds and $80-billion more in the bank."

Recently, I asked a few experts on poverty in black America about how we might get to average. I heard a lot of deep breaths. When they picture black America, they see Buffalo. N.Y. _ a boarded-up central city and a few lakefront mansions. The glory days for the black working class were from 1940 to 1970, when manufacturing boomed and factory jobs were plentiful. But when the manufacturing sector became eclipsed by the service economy, black workers ended up _ well, stuck in a demographic Buffalo.

My colleague William Julius Wilson, the sociologist, thinks better manpower policies would help. Once black workers moved to where the jobs were; they need to do it again. Instead of trying to turn ghettos into boomtowns, then, we ought to provide workers with relocation assistance, and create "transitional public sector jobs" for those who haven't yet found a private-sector gig. Oh, and _ since we're dreaming _ fixing the schools would be nice, including "school-to-work transition programs."

Raines, as you might expect, considers homeownership to be crucial. "The average person develops more wealth in their home than they do in the stock market. Next to a job, it's the most important thing in a family's lives."

How to afford one, though? "The whole new service economy is fundamentally based on communications, the Internet, electronics," he told me. "That infrastructure is going to need people who can manage it, and those jobs are going to move from very high tech to being service jobs, just the way it happened at the telephone company. You used to have to be a scientist to operate a phone, and then it became a blue-collar job."

But maybe, as the economist Glenn Loury suggests, we need to aim lower. "There doesn't seem to be an end in sight to the vast, disproportionate overrepresentation of African-Americans in prison or jails," he told me. Job training for prisoners would be a good start.

Loury considers welfare reform a success: "We ask a lot more of mothers, and they have given us a lot more, and they and we are both better off for our having asked." When it comes to education, though, he advocates "equal expenditures per kid, no matter where they live."

Would any of these initiatives really make much of a difference in an age of offshoring? We're unlikely to find out. The White House has relegated its costly experiments in social engineering to Iraq. And so the '60s generation now seems to be presiding over the permanent entrenchment of a vast black underclass. Has average really become too much to ask for?

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the W.E.B. Du Bois professor of the humanities, the chair of Afro-American Studies and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard University.

New York Times News Service