Racism: despite gains, playing field still tilts

  • Article by: EDITORIAL , Los Angeles Times
  • Updated: October 17, 2011 - 8:38 PM
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Republican presidential candidate, businessman Herman Cain talks to reporters before heading out of Cincinnati on a private plane at Lunken Airport, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011.

Photo: Carrie Cochran, Associated Press

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Does racism against blacks still exist in the United States? Yes.

Is it still an institutionalized evil that holds back African-Americans? Depends on where you look and what you see.

There is a sizable black middle class; more blacks go to college than ever before, and -- yes, you know what's coming -- a black man is president of the United States, as is his leading campaign opponent at the moment.

On the other hand, by almost every statistical index of well-being, blacks fare worse than whites.

The percentage of African-Americans mired in poverty is nearly three times the percentage of whites in poverty. Blacks make less money generally and have higher unemployment levels.

A study published this month by the National Education Policy Center says that, nationwide, African-American students in grades K-12 are suspended three times as often as are white students for nonviolent infractions of school rules.

What all these statistics mean about how and why African-Americans continue to lag behind is a complicated topic. And perhaps that's what Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain should have said Sunday in a CNN interview when asked about race.

Instead, he said: "I don't believe there is racism in this country today that holds anybody back in a big way." Cain, who is black, is the former chief executive of the Godfather's Pizza chain.

Academics and politicians have been arguing over the root causes of those continuing disparities for decades. As Cain noted in the interview, one reason for the continuing gap in employment statistics is education.

But advocates for underserved minority students contend that one reason for the gap in academic achievement between blacks and whites is that blacks, overall, have less access to higher-quality elementary and high schools.

And there are other disturbing statistics that suggest a less-than-level playing field.

According to a 2010 report -- part of the Economic Mobility Project sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts -- among children of black middle-class parents who remain married, the percentage who grow up to earn incomes exceeding those of their parents is significantly less than among white children from similar families (62 percent vs. 86 percent).

Many economists and sociologists do not believe that opportunities are equal for all. Even Cain qualified his remarks by saying that a level playing field existed for "many" African-Americans, not all.

It's probably wiser for all of us, particularly those who want to be president, to characterize the availability of opportunity in the United States as Austin Nichols, an Urban Institute economist, does: "The playing field is still slanted."

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