Washington--In what is being called “the most comprehensive assessment of the status of black Americans to date,” the National Research Council has concluded that, despite gains in recent decades, blacks still face formidable barriers on their path to educational parity with whites.
“Segregation and differential treatment of blacks continue to be widespread in elementary and secondary schools,” says the report by a distinguished panel of scholars in the social and behavioral sciences. And though black children on average enter schools with substantially greater socioeconomic handicaps, “the schools do not compensate for these disadvantages.”
The report warns, moreover, that progress in education, as in other areas examined in the massive four-year study, has slowed dramatically since the economic downturn of the early 1970’s.
“Barring unforeseen events or changes in present conditions--that is, no changes in educational policies and opportunities, no increased income and employment opportunities, and no major national programs to deal directly with the problems of economic dependency--our findings imply several negative developments for blacks in the near future,” it concludes, “developments that in turn do not bode well for American society.”
Released here last week, the 600-page study, A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society, reviews the social and economic gains of the past 50 years and assesses the effectiveness of policies designed to bring about greater racial equality. It represents, its authors say, a distillation of available studies, including new research commissioned by the n.r.c.'s 22-member Committee on the Status of Black Americans.
“A striking theme that emerges from many bodies of evidence,” said the Cornell University sociologist Robin M. Williams, chairman of the committee, at a press conference here, “is the importance of the legacy of the past--that is, the massive influence here and now of past segregation and disadvantage.”
“Equally striking,” Mr. Williams said, “is the evidence that many white Americans today--contrary to the facts--seem to believe that the civil-rights era of the 1960’s removed all barriers to equal opportunity.”
The report concludes that while the overall well-being of both blacks and whites has advanced greatly over the past five decades, black Americans remain “substantially behind whites” on almost all statistical measures of socioeconomic status.
Blacks made great economic strides in the 1940’s and the 1960’s, it says, but “since the early 1970’s, the economic status of blacks relative to whites has, on average, stagnated or deteriorated.”
This has been accompanied by a widening of the status differences among groups of blacks, the study adds, complicating any overall assessment of the quality of life for blacks as a whole.
No ‘Culture of Poverty’
The nrc initiated the $2.7-million research project, Mr. Williams said, because it felt there had been no comprehensive study of blacks in society since the Swedish economist Gunner Myrdal published his groundbreaking work, An American Dilemma, in 1944.
The 1968 Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, or “Kerner report,” had a significant impact on public policy, he said, but its authors “were under the gun” to make recommendations and did not have adequate time to address race relations in great depth.
The nrc committee focused its attention on six primary areas: participation in the political process, economic status, schooling, health, crime and criminal justice, and the well-being of children and families.
One of its most significant findings was that the data and analyses it examined did not support the commonly accepted notion that a self-perpetuating “culture of poverty” exists in the black community.
“The chronically poor are a minority of poor people in general, including blacks; attitudes toward work and the desire to succeed are not very different among the poor and nonpoor,” the report says.
The panel found instead that racial barriers and disadvantages “persist in blocking black advancement.”
Nevertheless, it pointed to troublesome recent developments in black family life:
While the proportion of black families with incomes above $35,000 was rising between 1970 and 1980 from 18 percent to 22 percent, the proportion with incomes of less than $10,000 was growing from about 26 percent to 30 percent.
Black female-headed families were 50 percent of all black families with children in 1985, but had 25 percent of total black family income; 70 percent of black family income was received by black husband-wife families.
In the course of their childhood, 86 percent of black children are likely to spend some time in a single-parent household; the comparable figure for white children is 42 percent.
“The greater inequality between family types among blacks,” the report warns, “has important consequences for the welfare of future generations.”
In its examination of schooling, A Common Destiny reports signs of both progress and continuing roadblocks. It notes, for example, the impact of federal programs in early intervention and compensatory education, saying that Head Start and Chapter 1 have had “overall positive (although sometimes short-term) effects on the academic achievement of disadvantaged students.”
But it also points to the continuing segregation of many black stu8dents--both within schools through tracking and ability grouping, and by their assignment to various schools.
“The pace of school desegregation has slowed,” the study asserts, ''and racial separation in education is significant, especially outside the South ... Residential separation of whites and blacks in large metropolitan areas remains nearly as high in the 1980’s as it was in the 1960’s.”
Almost two-thirds of black students in public elementary and middle schools in 1980, the study found, attended schools with minority enrollments exceeding 50 percent.
“Standards of academic performance for teachers and students are not equivalent in schools that serve predominantly black students and those that serve predominantly white students,” the report stresses. “Nor are equal encouragement and support provided for the educational achievement and attainment of black and white students.”
Blacks have made small but consistent gains on tests of academic achievement, the study confirmed, and have experienced dramatic increases in rates of high-school completion. But the college-enrollment rates of high-school graduates declined sharply after 1977.
“The odds that a black student will enter college within a year of graduation from high school are less than one-half the odds for a white student,” the report asserts.
Schools Make a Difference
One factor in such disparities, the study suggests, may be the inability of many black children, particularly those in impoverished circumstances, to view education as a viable avenue to future success.
But the authors conclude that “the large differences in socioeconomic background between blacks and whites are perhaps the most significant factors in accounting for these black-white disparities in educational status.”
“When background differences are combined with such factors as residential separation of blacks and whites,” it continues, “the impact is very great.”
Nevertheless, the report stresses that “what schools do substantially affects the amount of learning that takes place.”
“Much research on between-institution differences,” it says, “has focused on a limited number of the most tangible inputs to the schooling process, such as expenditures per pupil and teacher-test scores. Other between-school differences that are related to within-school practices do matter.”
“These differences,” it says, “are closely tied to teacher behavior, school climate, and the content and organization of instruction.”
The National Research Council is the principal operating agency for the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering. Funding for A Common Destiny was provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York; the Pew Charitable Trusts; the Ford, Robert Wood Johnson, Andrew W. Mellon, Rockefeller, and Alfred P. Sloan Foundations; and the National Research Council fund.
Copies of the report are available for $35 each, prepaid, from the National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20418; (202) 334-2000.