3 Charts Reveal How Little Progress We've Made 50 Years After Selma


This weekend marked the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," the day Alabama state troopers attacked some 600 marchers with clubs and dogs on the Edmund Pettus Bridge just outside of Selma, Alabama. The march was the first of three attempts made by civil rights activists in March 1965 to travel between the cities of Selma and Montgomery as part of a campaign to claim voting right for African-Americans. Only the third march successfully completed the full 50-mile journey to Montgomery.

President Barack Obama delivered a fiery speech in Selma on Saturday, both to honor the iconic civil rights moment and to decry modern attempts at undermining the accomplishments for which its early participants bled. In 2013, a Supreme Court ruling struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act, and today, 30 states have laws that require voters to provide identification that disproportionately suppresses racial minorities at the polls, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. These laws have been deliberately used as political tools by conservatives to effectively disenfranchise parts of the electorate they don't think they can win. 

That the right to vote isn't guaranteed for every American in 2015 is an enormous failure. But it's not the only sign that the civil rights movement has been unable to achieve equality. By a number of other measures, African-Americans far from parity with white Americans. This speaks to the limitations of the civil rights movement, which did formalize people's equal treatment under the law, but could not mitigate the problem of material inequality — gaps in wealth, the job market, housing, and the like.

These gaps aren't going away. In fact, in recent decades, many have gotten worse. The following three charts illustrate the problem:

Wealth gap: The most jarring disparity between black households and white households is the wealth gap. As this chart from the Urban Institute displaying median family wealth shows, in 1983, whites held eight times more wealth than African-Americans. By 2013, the wealth gap increased to a 12-fold difference:

Urban Institute

The green bar for nonwhite between 1963 and 1983 is there because precise distinctions within the nonwhite population are available only after 1982.

In 2014, the Pew Research Center analyzed data from the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances and found that while the Great Recession exacted an enormous toll on all American households, it had a disproportionate impact on black (and Hispanic) households, exacerbating the already-massive racial wealth gap.

There are several reasons for the wealth gap, but the most significant factor is the manner in which African-Americans were systematically — and legally — excluded from the benefits of the postwar housing boom. Homeownership is key to social mobility, and its benefits compound across generations. 

The wealth gap problem is here to stay unless public policy reform addresses it directly.

The earnings gap: There is a dramatic earnings gap between white Americans, African-Americans and Hispanics. This simple chart shows the median value of lifetime earnings at age 61 for people born between 1943 and 1951:

Urban Institute

The typical white person accumulates $2 million over the course of his or her life, while black people earn $1.5 million. Hispanics earn about $1 million. This disparity contributes to differing abilities to invest, save, weather adversity and climb the socioeconomic ladder.

Unemployment gap: For most of the past six decades, the black unemployment rate has been double the white unemployment rate. This chart from Pew shows that the gap has been unbridgeable in the half-century since the civil rights movement:

Pew Research Center

In the 1980s, the gap was widest: African-Americans were unemployed at nearly triple the rate of whites, largely because the economy was shedding manufacturing jobs held disproportionately by black employees.

According to Pew's analysis, during the Great Recession, the gap was reduced to a black unemployment rate "only" 1.67 times that of the white unemployment rate, but the gulf has widened once again. In February this year, the black unemployment rate was 10.4%; the white unemployment rate was 4.7%.

None of this is to say suggests the civil rights movement was for naught. But it does suggest there's much to be done that will not be won purely through the promise of racial inclusion by way of desegregation.