When I started this Ground Control Parenting blog years ago to talk about educating and encouraging our black and brown boys it was fueled by a concern about the underachievement of young men of color—a concern I saw evidence of all around me. While many of my black female friends were enjoying successful careers and lives, in many instances they—like me–had at least one brother who was struggling. While so many of the parenting tips offered by GCP over the years work for raising girls as well, we have been steadily focused on our boys, feeling as if the deck is stacked against them.
So it was with no surprise but great dismay that I read a recent study, “Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States” that documents that black boys have a much harder way to go. This study conducted by economists from Harvard, Stanford and the U.S. Census Bureau (which the New York Times reported on here), analyzed data from 20 million children and their parents to study economic gaps by race across generations and to see how race currently shapes opportunity in the U.S.
There is a lot to unpack in this study, but here are the grim headlines: Black Americans are “moving on up” economically at a substantially lower rate than all other racial groups studied (White, Hispanics, Asians) except American Indians, and the data suggest that this is unlikely to change over time. A closer look at this black/white gap reveals that it is driven by the differences in black men’s outcomes. When black and white boys grow up in the same neighborhood with parents of similar income, wealth, and education levels, in adulthood the black men earn substantially less than the white men. This is the case whether these black boys are raised in poor neighborhoods with poor, less educated parents, or in wealthy neighborhoods with well-educated parents earning in the top 1%. But for black girls, the story is different: as adults they earn slightly more than white women who have been raised under similar circumstances.
Moreover, black boys who grow up with wealth have a much harder time than their white male counterparts holding onto it: less than 20% of those raised in families in the top 25% income levels manage to stay in that level as adults (versus the over 40% of the whites who stay at the top in adulthood). In fact, black boys raised in the top 25% have almost the same chance of ending up in the bottom 25% in adulthood as they do in staying at the top. Even in places and under circumstances where upward mobility is the highest for black boys, the black/white gap is larger on average, because the white boys are benefiting more from the advantages of living in these areas.
Researchers examine and dismiss some of the more common arguments people make to explain this racial economic gap. Yes, black children are more likely to grow up in a single parent household with poorer and less well educated parents, but as noted above, the gap exists even when black and white men grow up in two parent families with similar levels of income wealth and education. To refute the argument that a genetic inferiority could explain the gap, the researcher point to the facts that 1) there is no intergenerational gap for black women versus white women; and 2) the black/white gap in standardized testing, which is thought to be the basis of the ability difference argument, exists for both black men and women, and it has not stopped the black women from catching up to and passing the white women on income.
So racism is pervasive across all economic spectrums and it hits our boys the hardest. This news is not encouraging, to say the least. But the GCP approach has always been to see the world the way it is and then figure out what we can do about helping our boys do better in it. So the GCP approach has led to the following thoughts and suggestions:
1)Reality Check: The Stats are Less Surprising Than We Think. The NYT report on this study includes startling graphs that show large income gaps existing between black and white men, but not black and white women, raised in similar households. But if you place these graphs over one another, you will see another truth: there is no gap among black men, black women and white women raised in similar households. The white men are substantially out earning all of them. This doesn’t make the gap any less tolerable but from a historical standpoint it is certainly not surprising. In addition, it is noteworthy that this research used data for children born in 1978-1983. One wonders whether the next generation of young black men who have grown up with a Black president, disruptions of many major industries and the creation of many new ones, will be in a position to do more to close the gap.
2) Looking For Good News: What Works. There are a few findings in this study that suggest a path forward for black boys. Black men (and white men) have better outcomes when growing up in neighborhoods with lower poverty rates. And the two factors which are more strongly associated with better outcomes for black men and a smaller black/white gap within those low poverty areas are: low levels of racial bias among whites and high rates of black “father presence” in the neighborhood. The bad news is not many of us live in a city with a less than 10% rate (what the researchers define as “low poverty”). The good news is that we can learn and benefit from focusing on the other two factors.
Controlling for racial bias is a tough one. But this does suggest that we be more focused on the racial climate of our neighborhoods, so we can at least be aware of what it is and how it is affecting our boys. Are there opportunities to come together as a diverse group in school or in the community? If your son has white friends, do you know their parents and have a sense of how they regard your son? Do you have (or encourage your son to have) discussions about racial matters with his white friends? In the current political climate, it is getting harder and harder to have conversations with people if we perceive them to have differing beliefs. But in order to understand what biases may (or may not) exist, we have to listen to and talk with one another.
The black “father presence” finding is huge. The data revealed that higher rates of father presence among low income black households are associated with better outcomes for black boys, but do not affect the outcomes of black girls or white boys. Most significantly, the presence of fathers positively influences black boys’ outcomes regardless of whether it is their own father, or a father figure in the neighborhood. A positive black male role model in the community lifts black boys up and sets them on a better path to economic growth. Organizations like My Brother’s Keeper and the Campaign for Black Male Achievement are therefore on the right track, and we need to join and support them. GCP Dads, this is a call to action for you to get involved with the black boys in your community. Find a way: the Boy’s and Girl’s Club, The Boy Scouts, a local sports team, a church group—there is a way for you to help. Your help can change lives.
Moving with your son to a new neighborhood can also help. The data showed that black men who move to better areas–those with lower poverty rates, lower racial bias, and higher father presence–earlier in their childhood had higher incomes and lower rates of incarceration as adults.
3) Getting Wealthy is One Thing—Staying There is Another. My friends who are building nest eggs for their children’s future were particularly discouraged to see the stats about the many black men who were unable to hold onto their families wealth over time. Again, we’ve seen this happen amongst friends, but dismaying to see that it happens so regularly. What can we do about this with our sons? The first step, and it is a big one, is focusing on financial literacy. We need to make sure that our sons know from an early age the importance of paying attention to money, the need to save money, the difference between earning an income and accumulating wealth, ways to build non-income wealth, and the value of philanthropy. Parents who have done well enough to be concerned about these issues often do not include their children in any conversations about it. Big mistake.
Feel like you don’t know enough about this yourself? (I certainly do.) Start getting smart, and include your sons (and your daughters) in the process of getting smart. There are lots of websites and guides to financial literacy, and even some, like Goalsetter, that focus on financial literacy for kids. Check them out. It will help you and future generations if you start focusing on this now.
Thank you for this thoughtful cynopsis and analysis, Carol. As you indicated, this is a problem that we have all felt viscerally in our community, but the stats that bear out our fears are indicators of a bleaker reality than any of us suspected. The fact that Black families can neither take refuge in the traditional markers of success nor build generational wealth because the peril of poverty is always lurking over our shoulders, is a painful wound that America inflicts on our community every day that we wake up Black.