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Black America’s progress misjudged by all extremes

Brighter future: young students from Dr Martin Luther King Jr Elementary school wave their flags during Martin Luther King Day. Columnist Noah Smith argues that both the Right and Left have got it wrong over the progress of black America

As we celebrated Martin Luther King Day, most Americans seemed to be in agreement about one thing: Black America isn’t doing well. The Right seems to perceive black communities as hopeless morasses of violence and dysfunction, as Donald Trump’s repeated references to “inner cities” reveal. On the Left, there is a common notion that racial oppression is the same as it ever was. Although they disagree as to the cause, and focus on different problems, both sides seem rather sure that black America is mired in a more-or-less hopeless predicament.

But both sides just may be wrong. Evidence is quietly accumulating that black Americans are on an upward trend.

It is true that black Americans continue to make less money, on average, than others. The black-white income gap is as big as ever, as is the gap in wealth — and that comes against a backdrop of stagnant or declining incomes for the country’s working class in general. The housing bust was especially disastrous for black Americans, who saw their home values and homeownership rates fall more than others. It seems strange to assert that things are getting better in the wake of such economic devastation. But it is in the social realm, rather than the economic arena, that black Americans are doing markedly better than in past decades.

One of the biggest problems afflicting black America is crime and incarceration. Trump and others on the Right have harped relentlessly on crime rates in black communities, while writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates have decried the US system of mass incarceration. But although these problems still exist, both are improving dramatically.

Everyone by now should know that violent crime in America fell by about half during the 1990s. But fewer are aware that the decline continued during the 2000s. Here is a picture of how black homicide victimisation rates decreased during that decade:

Many fewer black Americans are being killed. The rate is still too high, of course, and there was an uptick in homicides in 2015, but black America is much safer than it was. Other types of violent crime, such as robbery and assault, have declined as well, meaning that millions of black Americans are now growing up in a much safer environment than their parents knew.

As for incarceration, that problem is about to get much less severe. Many fewer young black men are being locked away these days. Here is a picture of that change:

The overall numbers have not dropped that much yet because incarceration rates for older black men have risen. But that is an artefact of the imprisonment boom of the 1980s and 1990s. As those older convicts are released, and young ones don’t take their place, the rate at which black Americans are incarcerated will plunge in the years to come. We still lock up too many people in the US, and black Americans bear the burden of racial discrimination in the justice system. But things are getting better, fast.

How about education? Black Americans are graduating high school at higher rates than before. The college graduation rate has increased even more.

Are these trends owing to schools going easier on black students? No. On standardised tests, black students have closed about one quarter of the gap with white students since 1996.

Education is not the only arena where the gap between white and black Americans is narrowing. As economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton recently noted, black mortality rates have fallen steadily, while rates for non-Hispanic whites have actually risen slightly. As things stand, life expectancy for white Americans is only three years higher than for black Americans.

As for workplace discrimination, that is on the wane as well. Economists Hsieh Chang-tai and Erik Hurst estimate that racial bias in hiring has declined substantially for black men in most occupations, especially in professions such as law and medicine. Barriers against black people still exist and have risen even in occupations such as construction, but are generally less severe than in the 1970s and 1980s.

All of these facts add up to one inescapable conclusion: the negative picture of black America that many on both sides of the political spectrum hold in their minds, whether it was ever accurate, is increasingly obsolete. Black Americans are healthier, freer, safer, more educated and less excluded than in years past. This improvement has happened without a revolution or a sweeping reorganisation of the US economic system. It has come from steady pressure by reformers, from constant efforts by American businesses and schools, and, most importantly, from the successful efforts of black Americans themselves.

Much more remains to be done, of course. Recognising past progress should not mean that the US relents in the drive to fix the problems that remain. But slowly, inexorably, American society is helping its most historically excluded group to enjoy more and more of what the country has to offer.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion