Race and Economic Mobility

by Jamelle Bouie

Via Sociological Images (by way of the Economic Mobility Project) is an interesting chart showing downward class mobility among blacks and whites. Each bar represents the percentage of children who end up in the bottom fifth of income earners by race and income of the parent:

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Fifty-four percent of African Americans born into the bottom fifth of income earners remain there as adults (compared to 31 percent of whites). Likewise, 46.5 percent of blacks born into the second and middle fifth of income earners—the lower-middle and middle class, respectively—end up in the bottom fifth of income earners by adulthood.

The reasons for widespread downward mobility are complicated, but here are a few possibilities: on the whole, African Americans have few assets and are more likely to be in substantial debt. Moreover, middle-class African Americans are more likely to work in lower-income jobs and careers—nursing, teaching, etc.—and less likely to live in areas with rising or high housing values.

This all comes in addition to the massive destruction of the financial crisis, which wiped out billions in black wealth and erased decades of progress. "As of December 2009," according to The New York Times, "median black wealth dropped 77 percent, to $2,100." The truth is that most blacks only began to accumulate wealth in the 1960s and 70s, after federal laws opened the mainstream economy to the mass of black America. Before then, the black economic experience was marked by low wage labor, sharecropping, and—until the Second World War—outright slavery.

Simply put, the last three years constitute a huge setback in the African American community. The black middle class certainly hasn't disappeared, but it is far from firm ground.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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