The More Things Change ...

September 01, 1989 2 min read

Despite a half century of struggle in the nation’s courts and legislatures, black Americans still face formidable obstacles in their quest for quality and equality in education, according to a comprehensive new study.

The four-year, $2.7 million research effort by the National Research Council tracks the past 50 years of blacks’ social and economic progress. It is the first major study of blacks in American society since the 1968 Report of the National Advisory on Civil Disorders, and the first review of research since Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 benchmark work, An American Dilemma.

The 600-page report, titled A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society, asserts that despite economic gains during the 1940’s and 1950’s, black Americans remain “substantially behind whites” on almost all measures of socioeconomic status. Since the early 1970’s, in particular, the report states, “the economic status of blacks relative to whites has, on average, stagnated or deteriorated.” The document notes, for example, that while the proportion of black families earning more than $35,000 a year rose from 18 to 22 percent between 1970 and 1980, the proportion of black families earning less than $10,000 also increased, from 26 to 30 percent.

The data and analyses did not support the commonly held notion that a self-perpetuating “culture of poverty” exists in the black community. The panel found instead that racial barriers and disadvantages “persist in blocking black advancement.’”

According to Robin M. Williams, chairman of the NRC’s Committee on the Status of Black Americans, which drafted the report, two striking themes emerge: first, “the massive influence here and now of past segregation and disadvantage,’” and second, the widely held belief among whites that the struggle for equality and economic justice ended with the civil rights movement. That belief, Williams says, is “contrary to the facts.’”

In its assessment of education, the committee found limited evidence of progress. Although Head Start and Chapter 1 programs have contributed to some short-term academic gains for black students, inequity continues to be a striking feature of the nation’s public schools, the authors state. The report also notes:

• A continuing pattern of segregation. Almost two-thirds of black students in public elementary and middle schools attend schools with minority enrollments exceeding 50 percent. Racial separation also is apparent within schools, through tracking and ability grouping.

• An academic double standard. “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 asserts.

• A declining black college enrollment. While white enrollment is on the rise, the number of black high school graduates going on to college has declined sharply since 1977. The odds that a black student will enter college are less than one-half the odds for a white student.

The report did not place all of the blame for failure on the schools, noting that blacks may be hampered by an awareness of the disparities that distance them from society’s mainstream. Black children who grow up in poverty, the report suggests, simply may not view education as an avenue to success.

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as The More Things Change ...