Socioeconomic Status Improves, but Racial Disparities Persist

(February 2001) The African American population has made remarkable progress since the 1960s. U.S. blacks — who numbered more than 33 million in 1999 — are now more educated, earn higher salaries, work in more prestigious jobs, and participate more fully in politics. Even still, racial disparities persist in many areas, including education, income, and politics.


In 1970, only about one-third of African American adults had graduated from high school. In 1998, 86 percent of blacks ages 25 to 44 graduated from high school, close to the percentage for whites and Asians. Yet, non-Hispanic whites in this age group are still twice as likely — and Asians are three times as likely — as young African Americans to complete four or more years of college.


Incomes have risen for most Americans in the past 30 years. Black households enjoyed a 31 percent boost in real median household income between 1967 and 1997, compared with a 18 percent increase for whites (including Hispanics).

African Americans still tend to earn less than whites — even when they have similar educational levels. In 1997, the annual median household income for blacks was about $25,100, compared with $45,400 per year for Asians and $40,600 for whites. Non-Hispanic whites with at least a bachelor’s degree earned $19,000 (in 1997 dollars) more per year than whites who had no more than a high school education, on average. The annual income added by a bachelor’s degree for blacks, however, was just $12,800. The differences in the return on a college education probably also reflect regional differences in incomes, racial discrimination in hiring and promotions, and disparities in the quality of education they received.


African Americans play an important role in politics. The black vote has been instrumental in recent elections, especially for Democratic candidates. According to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the 2000 election reflected an increasingly partisan black vote: 90 percent of African Americans voted for Vice President Gore, compared with 84 percent for President Clinton in 1996. In the 1998 state political races, African American voters helped elect Democratic governors in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina and re-elect a governor of Maryland. In each state race, most white voters supported the Republican candidate.

The ability of minorities — including African Americans — to translate their numbers into political power was bolstered by the federal Voting Rights Act, especially after it was extended in 1982. The number of African-American elected officials jumped from 4,890 in 1980 to 8,936 in 1999. African Americans, however, are still underrepresented among elected officials. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies estimates that 1.7 percent of all elected officials were black in 1999. Additionally, the 2000 election has been marred by allegations that black votes were systematically excluded through registration irregularities, old voting machines, and other problems.

Limited Access to Health Care Contributes to Lagging Health Status

While the health of all Americans has improved markedly over the past century, African Americans and other minorities often have more health problems and higher mortality rates than whites in the same age groups.

Much of this difference in health status is associated with lower socioeconomic status and more limited access to health care. African Americans are much less likely than whites to have health insurance. About 12 percent of non-Hispanic whites reported that they had no health coverage in 1997, compared with 21 percent of African Americans.

Life expectancy rates show a persistent racial gap. In 1997, the average life expectancy at birth was 77.1 years for whites (including Hispanics) and 71.1 years for blacks — the highest levels ever for both groups. Life expectancy has increased more rapidly for whites than for African Americans, which caused the gap between the two groups to expand from its historic low point of 5.7 years in 1982 to 7.1 years in 1987. By 1997, the white advantage in life expectancy had narrowed to 6.0 years. Life expectancy increased every year for whites over the period, while it fluctuated for blacks after 1984, primarily because of a temporary decline in life expectancy for black men.

African Americans have higher mortality rates in most age groups. The difference is especially stark among infants. The infant mortality rate (deaths to children under age 1 per 1,000 births) for African Americans was 14.7 in 1995, more than twice the rate for Asians, whites, or Hispanics, and more than one-third higher than the rate for American Indians.

Many African American infants face precarious health situations that begin before birth. Because of a lack of health insurance, limited access to health facilities, and a host of other reasons, less than three-fourths of black women (72 percent) reported receiving prenatal care during their first trimester of pregnancy in 1997. Asian women (82 percent) and white women (88 percent) were much more likely to receive first-trimester prenatal care.

African American babies are much more likely than other babies to be born prematurely and to have a low birth weight. Thirteen percent of African American babies born in 1997 were low-birth-weight babies — they weighed less than 5.5 pounds at birth. In sharp contrast, just 6 percent to 7 percent of American Indian, Hispanic, Asian, and white babies weighed less than 5.5 pounds at birth in 1997. Low birth weight is associated with a lower chance of surviving the first year of life and with many long-term health and developmental problems.

African Americans also face a greater risk of death from homicide and HIV/AIDS than whites. Homicide was not among the top 10 causes of death for white men in 1997, for example, yet it was the fifth most common cause of death for African American men. The National Center for Health Statistics reports show that minority men are much less likely than white men, however, to die from an automobile crash, heart disease, or (except for American Indians) from suicide.

Among women, death rates from diabetes — a disease exacerbated by poor nutrition and health care — are noticeably higher among blacks than among Asians or whites. African American women also face a greater risk of dying from infectious diseases or homicide than white women, but they have a lower risk of dying from suicide.

Trends Point to Increasing Diversity Among Blacks

Most African Americans are descendents of families that have been in the United States for many generations. Increasing numbers of blacks, however, also share ties with immigrant groups from Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere that have differing linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Immigration is likely to increase the diversity within the African American population. In 1980, about 3 percent of blacks were foreign-born. Many African-origin immigrant groups swelled in size over the past two decades and by 1998, 5 percent of blacks were foreign-born.

The Caribbean is the source of most U.S. immigrants of African descent. In 1998, nearly 3 million Americans were born in the Caribbean, and almost one-half of these immigrants were black. The Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica are among the leading sources of black Caribbean immigrants, including Hispanic blacks.

Africa was the source of less than 4 percent of U.S. immigrants between 1981 and 1998, but new migration streams are being formed that suggest the flow from Africa may expand in the future. In 1998, about 560,000 Americans were born in Africa, up from 360,000 in 1990, and from just 60,000 in 1970. Some African immigrants identify as white, in particular those from North Africa, but an increasing share are blacks from sub-Saharan Africa. In 1990, 55,000 foreign-born Americans were from Nigeria and 35,000 were from Ethiopia. Ghana, Kenya, and Morocco were other major source countries for African immigrants.