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Race relations in the United States: education and wealth disparity remain a key impediment

By Chris Lewis - posted Thursday, 11 November 2021

At a time when 61% of American adults in the July 2021 Pew poll view the long-term rise in ethnic diversity as neither good nor bad, with only 22 per cent saying it was bad, how does the US fare in terms of overcoming racial differences given the large minorities within its population?

Despite various critical academic concepts suggesting that racism is entrenched in the US through “an intricate web of laws and norms that maintained disparities of wealth, education, housing, incarceration and access to political power”, and state Republican lawmakers now passing legislation to prevent critical race theory from discussions in classrooms, the evidence does suggest that education and wealth disparity remain important factors preventing greater integration.

This is despite race relations having improved considerably since key legislation was implemented to counter racial discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s, including Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965) and the Fair Housing Act (1968).  


One can observe such evidence prior to the coronavirus disaster when the unemployment rate for Blacks improved to 5.5 per cent by September 2019 compared to 3.2 percent for Whites.    

With census data indicating that the poverty rate was 14.4 per cent for all Americans by 2019, with Blacks improving from 47.6 per cent in 1982 to 26.4 per cent, the median income of $68,703 (US dollars throughout) in 2019 for all American households included Asians $98,174, white non-Hispanics $76,057, all Whites $72,204, Hispanics of all races $56,113, and Blacks $45,438.

When considering the difference between families' gross assets and their liabilities to include home ownership, shares and savings (including superannuation), the federal reserve noted that White families had a median and mean level of wealth of $188,200 and $983,400, Black families $24,100 and $142,500, and Hispanic families $36,100 and $165,500.  

Having less income and wealth is a huge impediment to progress, as illustrated by education outcomes.  

While many families will seek to live in the best neighbourhoods they can afford, it is argued that the quality of primary and secondary schools in the US is highly correlated with the wealth of a community given that school funding primarily is dependent on local property taxes that is driven by the wealth of residents.

With majority non-White school districts as a whole receiving $23 billion less than majority White districts, despite serving the same number of students, the end result is that 74 per cent of Black students were in mid-high or high poverty schools in the 2016-17 school year compared to 31 per cent of White students (44 per cent to 8 per cent in high-poverty schools).  


Of the students who do go on to college, with the proportion of Black students completing high school diplomas or the General Educational Development equivalent improving from 66 per cent to 88 per cent between 1990 and 2017 (Whites from 79 per cent to 90 per cent), Blacks face a greater  financial burden with just 41 per cent of Black students graduating by 2018 after beginning their degrees in 2012 compared to 67 per cent of White students.

Blacks and Hispanics have the lowest levels of bachelor degree or higher attainment despite all groups improving in percentage terms from 2010 to 2019: Asians 52.4 to 58.1, non-Hispanic Whites 33.2 to 40.1, Blacks 19.8 to 26.1, and Hispanics 13.9 to 18.8.

Hence, Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to have lower wages in line with the average full-time wage for a worker in 2019 being $27,040 for those with less than a high school diploma, High School Diploma $37,024, some College but No Degree $40,248, associate’s degree $43,472, bachelor’s degree $60,996, Master’s Degree $72,852 and Doctorate or Professional Degree $90,636-$95,472. 

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About the Author

Chris Lewis, who completed a First Class Honours degree and PhD (Commonwealth scholarship) at Monash University, has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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