The Whole Story On Race
by Alan Jenkins, Executive Director of The Opportunity Agenda
Opportunity in America is a two-way street. Each of us has a responsibility to do our best, pursuing whatever pathways to success are available to us. And our society has a responsibility to keep those pathways open and accessible to everyone, irrespective of race, gender, or other aspects of what we look like or where we come from.
That balance of personal responsibility and self-help on one hand, while demanding fairness and equity on the other, has always been crucial to the African-American quest for opportunity. That's why Malcolm X and the Million Man March continue to occupy such important places in the black consciousness, and why civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the National Urban League continue to promote educational and self-help programs along with advocacy and anti-discrimination efforts.
Given that reality, it's disappointing that the media coverage of Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint's new book, Come on, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors, seems to be telling only half the story when it comes to the state of black America.
Cosby and Poussaint's book offers important advice to African Americans on topics from staying in school, to having dinner with your children, to staying away from drugs and guns, to eating healthily. And it notes that past and present discrimination continue to affect black people's opportunities, even as it urges black folks to rise above those obstacles. But the media coverage of the book—of Cosby himself of late—ignored that balanced message, painting a misleading and stereotypical picture of universal black dysfunction rooted solely in millions of bad individual choices, and detached from our country's societal choices, which also powerfully affect the nation's people, including African Americans.
Cosby and Poussaint's recent appearance on Meet the Press is an example. Quoting from the book, host Tim Russert and the authors recited a litany of familiar and all-too-accurate statistics: "One out of three homeless people are black…. Homicide is the number one cause of death for black men between 15 and 29 years of age and has been for decades….Although black people make up 12 percent of the general population, they make up nearly 44 percent of the prison population. At any given time, as many as one in four of all … young black men are in the criminal justice system— prison or jail, on probation or on parole."
The authors stressed, correctly, that African Americans must work to turn these numbers around, through the kind of "group uplift" that has served our community since the time of slavery. But the interview failed to reveal another set of numbers that begins to explain what the black community is up against, and why individual responsibility is necessary, but not sufficient to solve these problems. Consider, for example, these findings from The Opportunity Agenda's State of Opportunity in America report:
- Although rates of drug use are roughly equal among African Americans and whites, extreme laws addressing drug related and nonviolent crimes have disproportionately affected African Americans; between 1990 and 2000, the number of African Americans incarcerated in state prisons for drug offenses increased by over 80 percent, to 145,000, a number that is 2.5 times higher than that for whites.
- A 2000 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development study found that whites were favored over similarly qualified African Americans in rental housing 22 percent of the time. In housing sales— traditional steppingstone to the middle class— received favorable treatment over African Americans 17 percent of the time.
- A study that assessed whether a criminal record would damage job chances found that white applicants with criminal records were more likely to receive callbacks from employers than African Americans who did not have criminal records .
- A study by the Boston Federal Reserve Bank found that, even after controlling for a variety of applicant, loan, and property characteristics, the rejection rate for African-American and Hispanic applicants was 82 percent higher than for white applicants.
These barriers to opportunity stack up, one on top of the other, and reveal why, at the societal level, equal effort does not produce equal results for the black community. They are compounded, moreover, by persistent trends toward public disinvestment in increasingly segregated public schools, unequal access to health care and greater environmental hazards facing African-American communities.