The Good News About Black America

It was a stunning vision of racial equality, manifested in a simple yet stirring mantra: "I have a dream." Though Martin Luther King Jr.'s cherished utopia has not arrived, it seems considerably less remote than it did in August 1963 when, from the Washington Mall, King challenged America to make his dream come true. African-Americans are no longer relegated, as he lamented, to "a lonely island of poverty" in the midst of plenty. By a wide array of measures, now is a great time--the best time ever--to be black in America.

Black employment and home ownership are up. Murders and other violent crimes are down. Reading and math proficiency are climbing. Out-of-wedlock births are at their lowest rate in four decades. Fewer blacks are on welfare than at any point in recent memory. More are in college than at any point in history. And the percentage of black families living below the poverty line is the lowest it has been since the Census Bureau began keeping separate black poverty statistics in 1967. Even for some of the most persistently unfortunate--uneducated black men between 16 and 24--jobs are opening up, according to a just-released study of hard-luck cases in 322 urban areas by researchers at Harvard University and the College of William and Mary.

More and more blacks have entered the realm of the privileged and have offices in (or tantalizingly near to) the corridors of corporate and political power. Some control multimillion-dollar budgets and reside in luxurious gated communities. They are, by any criteria, living large--walking testaments to the transformative power, to the possibility, of America.

"I really think there is a new phenomenon out there," says Eddie Williams, head of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the nation's premier think tank on blacks and politics. According to the center, the number of black elected officials has nearly sextupled since 1970, and now stands at roughly 9,000. In a poll late last year by the Joint Center, blacks were more likely than whites--for the first time in the history of this survey--to say they were better off financially than in the previous year (51 percent compared with 31.5 percent). A new NEWSWEEK Poll confirms that the finding is not a fluke. Seventy-one percent of blacks (compared with 59 percent of whites) told NEWSWEEK's pollsters that they expected their family incomes to rise during the next 10 years. Fifty-seven percent of blacks (compared with 48 percent of whites) foresaw better job opportunities ahead. As Los Angeles gangbanger turned music entrepreneur Darrin Butler, 28, sums it up, "From where I'm sitting, everything is looking bright."

This sunniness is reflected in the country's popular imagination, which freely celebrates the appeal and accomplishments of African-Americans. Michael Jordan, Lauryn Hill, Colin Powell--pick your icon; if you are touched at all by American culture your idol is likely to be black. There have always been black successes and superstar achievers, but never before has black been quite so beautiful to so many admirers of every hue. "When did you ever think you would see black men as the heroes of white children?" asks Bobby William Austin, head of the Village Foundation, an Alexandria, Va.-based nonprofit that runs programs for young black men.

Today's upswing in black fortune is unfolding in a singular context, against the backdrop of a superheated economy that has been booming since April 1991. That expansion, the longest ever in a time of peace, has been a boon to Americans of every race. It would be a mistake, however, to credit the economy alone for the sense of hope sprouting in many black communities. Even as the strong economy has made bigger dreams possible, a strong resurgence of black self-confidence and self-determination has made their realization more probable. Indeed, blacks polled by NEWSWEEK credited black churches (46 percent) and black self-help (41 percent) for the upturn in black conditions. It would also be a mistake to assume that today's good times have brought good tidings to all blacks. They have not. More black men than ever languish in prisons. Black academic achievement stills lags that of whites. And suicides among young black men have risen sharply, reflecting a deep "sense of hopelessness," says Jewelle Taylor Gibbs, a psychologist and University of California, Berkeley, professor. And fear is pervasive that an economic downturn--or the legal-political assault on affirmative action--could wipe out blacks' tenuous gains.

Nonetheless, for a community yet haunted by the memory of Jim Crow, this is a remarkable moment. One of the most dramatic signs of progress is the explosion of productive activity as once desolate inner-city neighborhoods, such as Chicago's North Lawndale, come to life. In 1966, this area on Chicago's West Side was so blighted that Martin Luther King rented an apartment there to call attention to it. Then things got worse. The area was largely incinerated by the riots that broke out in the wake of King's assassination in 1968. More than half of the population moved out between 1960 and 1990. Now new construction is shooting up. Homes are selling for as much as $275,000 apiece. And the young black professionals flocking back to buy them talk of renaissance and hope reborn.

"People wrote this area off. They didn't believe middle-class African-Americans would come back here. Now we're making this neighborhood work," says Demetrius Barbee. For Barbee, a Blockbuster executive, and her husband, Gerald, a medical-equipment technician, trading in a fancy North Lake Shore Drive address for a North Lawndale dream house was not merely a matter of getting good quality for a good price. It was an investment of hope in the very idea of a community coming back from the dead.

Homan Square, the development where the Barbees now live, resulted from a serendipitous confluence of events. Sears, having moved its onetime world headquarters out of the area, had plenty of well-maintained land it was willing to donate to the project. Mayor Richard M. Daley was eager to facilitate--providing, among other assistance, grants to first-time homeowners. And an important developer, the Shaw Co., saw the value of the enterprise. The Homan Square experiment in urban reclamation has covered six city blocks with 299 units of housing, 133 of them owner-occupied single-family homes. It has also spawned a health clinic, several new businesses and numerous other construction projects. Perhaps most important, it has inspired other developers. Just southeast of Homan Square sits a new shopping center anchored by a Dominick's supermarket and a 10-screen Cineplex Odeon Theater. A few blocks away, another town-house development has gone up. Central City Productions, a local black-owned entertainment company, plans to build a $150 million, 337,000-square-foot television-studio complex. And other projects are pending.

Though few urban ghettos have seen a turnaround as promising as North Lawndale's, withered communities elsewhere are rebounding as well. In the Elmhurst area of Oakland, Calif., new buildings are rising from the rubble. Unlike in Chicago, where a major company took the lead, this turnaround effort--like others in New York, Chattanooga, Tenn., Savannah, Ga., and elsewhere--is community based. In the past year alone Allen Temple Baptist Church has generated more than $20 million worth of new construction projects. The church plans to open a 60,500-square-foot Family Living Center this summer (with activities for everyone from children to senior citizens) and has broken ground for a 24-unit complex for AIDS/HIV patients.

"This is a congregation that long ago decided to take matters into its own hands," says Doris Britt, a church member and director of admissions at UC Berkeley's School of Social Welfare. Longtime congregant Joe Villa traces the can-do attitude to the late '70s. As white homeowners and white-owned businesses and banks took flight, the church kept the faith. Determined to provide a place for community residents to bank, "we contacted the National Credit Union Administration and figured out how to charter our own credit union," recalls Villa, who became its volunteer president. That credit union (which primarily serves church members) will be 20 years old next year and now holds more than $10 million in assets--making it the largest African-American church credit union in the country. Community-based activists are not only initiating urban-renewal projects, but driving down teenage births and crime all over America, contends Angela Blackwell, founder of Policy Link, an Oakland-based research and advocacy organization. "Poor people just got sick of it," she says. Others give more credit to government policies, including tough anti-crime measures and welfare reform. Kerman Maddox, chairman of the political-science department at Los Angeles Southwest College, in South-Central L.A., says his female students are taking school more seriously and are less likely to have babies. "In the past, I'd say half my 18- to 22-year-old students had kids," says Maddox. "The number has dropped dramatically." He believes welfare-reform provisions "that no longer reward them for having more kids" are the principal reason.

Whatever the motivations (and they are necessarily multiple), more young people are moving to take control of their lives; and the result seems to be a better shot at success. As Shykiesha Walker, the 17-year-old president of the Young Girls Keeping it Real Club, in Watts, puts it, "We're just trying to keep ourselves out of trouble, achieve a higher goal in life."

Across the country, Piney Woods Life School, a private boarding academy in rural Mississippi, is stoking that hunger for success. Started at the turn of the century to educate children of Mississippi field hands, it has evolved into a haven for mistreated or troubled black kids from across America. Many come from backgrounds similar to Kenyatah's, a 16-year-old junior whose parents, both junkies, kicked her out of their Washington, D.C., home at the age of 4. She ended up with relatives, also addicts, and spent time living on the street. Serendipity and a recommendation from a friend of her aunt brought Kenyatah to Piney Woods, and she is grateful for the change. "Where I'm from, you don't learn anything [in school]," she says.

At Piney Woods academics are stressed, and self-pity is not an option. Over the last several years, ACT scores for Piney Woods seniors have risen from an average of 9.8 to an average of 18.1--compared with a national average of 22. "We've set a goal of having our young people exceed the national average on the ACT within the next three years," says school president Charles Beady Jr. Piney Woods graduates routinely go on to Ivy League colleges. Many also become ambassadors of deliverance, spreading the word that black children can triumph, no matter how or where their lives begin.

The significant reversal of black fortunes is a signal event, one that "must be acknowledged and celebrated," says Joe Hicks, executive director of the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission. Yet, for the most part, blacks are not celebrating it, which raises an inevitable question: if the news in black America is so good these days, why are people not dancing in the streets? Why are civil-rights leaders not proclaiming it from the rooftops? Why has the dialogue on racial relations not fundamentally changed to accentuate the progress instead of the lingering problems?

Ward Connerly, the controversial black businessman and driving force behind Proposition 209, the ballot measure that eliminated affirmative action in California state government, thinks the reason has a lot to do with the fossilized attitude of many blacks--particularly those in the leadership class. Even though society has transformed itself, says Connerly, many African-Americans are "locked into that mind-set of the '60s that society is racist... We just can't let go. Our leaders... can't let go. I won't say they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, although I think that's a possibility." Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson agrees. In the aftermath of the civil-rights revolution, "blaming racism" made good politics and fashionable social science, he says. That era is ending, in Patterson's view, "but, tragically, Afro-American leaders now seem trapped by the fire they started."

In African-American leadership circles, Patterson's indictment strikes a nerve. It even evokes limited agreement. Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, executive director of the Black Leadership Forum, an umbrella group of civil-rights organizations, concedes, "We don't often enough acknowledge where there have been successes." Nonetheless, civil-rights leaders resent and reject the view that they are a bunch of self-serving doomsayers. "We have celebrated the economy, the reduction in unemployment, the reduction in teen-pregnancy rates," says Huge Price, head of the National Urban League.

The problem is that although certain blacks are thriving, others are not. Many of those "beneath the surface of socioeconomic viability," as sociologist Elijah Anderson describes them, are worse off than ever. Many blighted, black neighborhoods lack the equivalent of a Homan Square or an Allen Temple and are dying slow, painful deaths. And in that fact lies a leadership challenge and a philosophical dilemma. How can civil-rights leaders acknowledge the real and evident progress without encouraging complacency? How can they keep the pressure on to "move the glass from half-full to three-quarters full," in Price's words, if they give up the language of crisis and damnation? How do they avoid playing into the hands of those who would eliminate affirmative action, voting-rights enforcement and so many other things that are largely responsible for the black progress on display today? "To the extent you proclaim your success, other people forget about you," worries the Joint Center's Eddie Williams.

Then there is the fear--one deeply felt not only among the black leadership class but among much of the black general population--that the good times may be transient. What happens, skeptics ask, when the economy hits bottom? Or if the attacks on affirmative action ultimately eliminate opportunities, only recently won, in both the private and the public sectors?

In addition, there is this cold reality: for every upbeat statistic that engenders joy, there is a dismal number--or a skeptical reading--that invites alarm. And there are millions of personal experiences that conflict with the rosy statistics. In 1998, the jobless rate for blacks 20 to 24 years old was 16.8 percent, down from 24.5 percent in 1985; but that means little to Travon Netherly, a student at L.A. Southwest College. Recently, says Travon, four of his brothers applied for a job at an Orange County amusement park. Despite the help-wanted ad in the window, all were turned away. "My brothers were willing to take anything, even wear one of those Snoopy costumes," says Netherly, who bitterly adds, "It don't take skills to be Snoopy.''

Eric Frierson, a 33-year-old data processor and Watts native, has equally pressing worries. Frierson did 11 years in Folsom penitentiary, but has managed to stay out of trouble for the past five years, and now volunteers for FACES, a community-outreach organization working in Watts's Imperial Courts housing projects. It is an area where buildings are pockmarked by bullet holes and bad company constantly beckons. "They told me I can't be around no ex-cons," says Frierson, but "everybody I know is an ex-con. All my brothers are ex-cons. Almost every black man you see is an ex-con. Who am I going to be with?"

Frierson's plaintive question reflects a sobering reality. An estimated 70 percent of the young black men of Watts--those between the ages of 16 and 25--are on "some kind of paper," meaning they're in jail, on parole or on probation. That specter of prison haunts countless other black communities across the nation. In some areas, prison time has become such a pervasive feature of life that it has totally undermined the hard-fought victory for black voting rights. One million four hundred thousand black men, or 13 percent of the total, are disenfranchised because of felony convictions, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project.

Some even question whether the much-vaunted black progress in education is as genuine as it seems. A study of higher education in 19 states done by The Southern Education Foundation shows that though the numbers of blacks in college overall are up, those of first-time, full-time freshmen are not. Numerous experts are also concerned about the impact of anti-affirmative-action measures. When California, Texas and Washington state eliminated affirmative action, all experienced huge drops in the numbers of blacks and Latinos admitted to their most selective state schools.

In earlier grades, the picture is also ambiguous. Twenty-six states have adopted exams high-school seniors must pass before they can graduate, according to a new study from the Applied Research Center, an Oakland-based research and advocacy group. "In virtually every state that has implemented high-school exit exams, a disproportionate number of those who have passed all other requirements but fail to graduate... are students of color," charged the report. Exit exams "essentially punish poor students and those of color for attending substandard schools," concluded ARC. Less easily explained, this performance gap also persists in affluent and integrated communities, such as Shaker Heights, Ohio.(related article)

Welfare reform, likewise, does not bring exclusively good news. Clearly, it has taken recipients of all races (more than 2 million families) off the rolls, and given many a second shot at a productive life. Studies--and at this point there are no definitive ones--suggest that perhaps two thirds manage to get along reasonably well (often through a combination of part-time work, forays into the underground economy and help from their families). But many (probably most) don't find full-time permanent jobs. And it appears that whites do better than blacks. The racial difference "is consistent with what we know about employer preference," says Melvin Oliver of the Ford Foundation. There are other likely reasons, as well, including the fact that black women are less likely to live where jobs are located. But like virtually everything else involving race, the reality of welfare reform is too complex to capture with one hackneyed truism, or with one simple set of statistics. In Wisconsin, which has more experience with welfare reform than any other state in the nation, thanks to a series of initiatives that began under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, that complicated truth is reflected in the divergent experiences of Cassandra Tucker and Sheri Totton.

Tucker, 29, and the mother of six, became a welfare recipient after her divorce five years ago. She is now a foreman at Central Overhead Door, and she credits Wisconsin's tough-love welfare policy with getting her there. Where the old welfare policy encouraged dependency, the new one promotes independence. "You are special. You can do great things," one social worker told Tucker. She believed it and triumphed. After spending the summer of 1998 learning construction at a building-rehab site managed by the YWCA of Greater Milwaukee, she was hired for her present job.

Where Tucker found empowerment in welfare reform, Totton--so far--has found only struggle. Totton, also 29, lost her housing because she could no longer pay the rent, and now lives with her three daughters in a family shelter one block west of the YWCA that turned Tucker's life around. After eight years on public aid, the best job she could land was a part-time position at a local food bank. She's had a hard time juggling her job and school--neither of which she can afford to miss, since the penalty is a reduction in her welfare benefits. And it is far from clear that she will have the wherewithal any time soon to make the leap to self-sufficiency. "A lot of stuff is confusing," she sheepishly admits. What the two women's stories make clear is that it's ultimately impossible to say whether things are better or worse without asking, "better or worse for whom?" Similarly, one must also ask, "Compared with what?"

Black executives inevitably compare themselves with their white peers, notes Sharon Collins, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "And no matter how well the blacks are doing, they're not doing as well as their white counterparts." In fact, when blacks compare themselves with whites in virtually any arena, the picture is unsettling.

Black income, for instance, is at its highest level ever, and unemployment is lower than it has been in a quarter of a century. Yet black unemployment (at 8.9 percent) remains more than twice the rate for whites (3.9 percent). Among workers 20 to 24, the unemployment numbers are even more lopsided (16.8 percent for blacks, 6.5 percent for whites). Such high unemployment among blacks "in a virtually full-employment economy says there's still something wrong," observes Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Labor-force participation figures are equally dispiriting, particularly for black teens. Only 40 percent of black males between 16 and 19 are in the labor force, compared with 57 percent of their white counterparts. And though black median income (for a family of four) reached a record high of $34,644 in 1997, that was still $21,378 less than the average for whites.

It is not, however, just the difference in numbers that makes so many blacks loath to believe American society is serious about racial equality. There are also the continuing reminders of racism. Even for those blacks for whom now is the best of times, bigotry remains more than a memory. For those who get brutalized by cops or stopped for "Driving While Black" (incidents that dramatically erupted recently in New Jersey and New York), it's impossible to feel truly accepted in America, points out Mary Frances Berry, chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Or, as economist Glenn Loury puts it: "A lot of people are pissed off, and they're not all crazy."

That black schoolchildren are still wrestling with the ludicrous issue of whether academic achievement somehow makes them less black says volumes about the message of black-white difference that society continues to send. It is a message graphically underscored by the intense segregation that defines American living patterns. And it is continually bolstered by popular culture, particularly television, which keeps its dating shows racially segregated and its programming racially segmented. Hence, it's no wonder that blacks and whites generally watch totally different prime-time shows. And it's hardly surprising that even though the incidence of interracial marriages has grown greatly, marriages between blacks and whites are a fraction of those between whites and Hispanics or whites and Asians.

What all that says, in short, is that, for all the well-documented black success stories, and for all the heartwarming statistics, blacks remain, in substantial measure, a race apart in America: a race admired, even emulated, yet held at arm's length. It reflects a particular American schizophrenia. We embrace equality and yet struggle with it in reality. We have come so far, and yet we have not escaped the past.

In perhaps the most famous passage of his most famous book, "The Souls of Black Folk" (first published in 1903), the great sociologist and social activist W.E.B. Du Bois tried to explain what it meant to be a Negro in America. "One ever feels his twoness--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." What he did not say, but could have, is that America also has its unreconciled strivings, an impulse toward acceptance coexisting with a tendency toward exclusion, a reverence for equality that coexists with stirrings of racism.

The good news on black America is too clear to deny. In the past few decades, blacks' fortunes and prospects have soared toward the heavens. Blacks have entered virtually every sector of American society and breathed life into Martin Luther King's extraordinary fantasy. It's too late to put the racial-justice genie back in the bottle. It's time to acknowledge what America and African-Americans together have accomplished and become. The bad news, however, is equally profound, and it can be summed up with two simple facts. Despite all the progress of the last several decades, we continue to talk about black America as a place and a people apart. And despite the lip service we pay to the concept of equality, we look with equanimity, even pride, upon a statistical profile of black Americans that, were it of whites, would be a source of horror and consternation. That is not likely to change soon; but until and unless it does, our great nation will never become the country of our finest dreams.

These statistics show that African Americans have made progress on many fronts: in education, health and finance. But they also indicate that blacks still lag white Americans in many important ways. A look at the gap between the races:

Socioeconomic factors put blacks at greater risk for failure, but they're gaining ground.

Blacks Whites 1991 6.0% 3.2 1996 6.7 4.1

BLACKS WHITES 1984 8 48 1996 32 133

50% of black students have parents who help them with homework 3 or more times weekly. It's 35% for whites.

87% of black college grads had full time jobs in 1997. Whites: 95%.

78% of black high schoolers' mothers had attained at least a highschool diploma in 1997, up from 36% in 1972

With better medical care, blacks are living longer and having healthier children.