Disparities Revealed In Black & White

September 15, 2005 | New York Daily News |

Last month, we marked the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. The act was a victory for the civil rights movement and added momentum to the War on Poverty. Together, these efforts initiated decades of progress.

But as the Superdome and Convention Center vividly displayed, economic disparity and its impact are still black and white. As the immediate debate on whether racism contributed to Katrina's devastation dies down and the long-term recovery in the Gulf Coast begins, the challenges of America's racial divide will not dissipate. They will only grow stronger.

Nationally, the median income of a black household is about $30,000, compared with $48,000 for white households, according to the Census Bureau. Across the affected areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, for every dollar in income earned by a white worker, an African-American worker earns just 63 cents, according to data from the Center for American Progress. For Katrina's survivors, this dramatic income disparity means that many of the resources people rely on to rebuild their lives — health insurance, flood insurance as either renters or homeowners, a safety net of assets to hold families over until employment resumes, access to credit for expenses over the next few months and even the means to declare bankruptcy if needed — will be more accessible to whites than to African-Americans.

This is a harsh reality. But it is one we cannot ignore. Ongoing economic disparities exist along racial lines. These disparities were not brought on by Katrina. They were amplified by it. Racial disparities in opportunity have a much longer history. Their legacy runs much deeper.

Things have improved since the Voting Rights Act was signed, yet nationally, three out of four whites own their homes while less than half of African-Americans do, according to census figures. In median net worth, black households hold less than 10 cents for every dollar held by white households, the Pew Hispanic Center reports. This is the case even with individuals with the same level of education. "Social Inequality," edited by Kathryn Neckerman, states that the net worth of black college graduates is close to the net worth of white high school graduates. The net worth of black high school graduates is close to the net worth of white high school dropouts.

The Gulf Coast's devastation is certainly rooted in a legacy of racism, but perhaps Katrina can have a legacy of its own: a national commitment to attacking the conditions of economic disparity that affected and will continue to torment the survivors.

Wheary is a senior fellow at the Manhattan-based public policy organization Demos.