Magazine

Commentary: How to Narrow the Great Race Divide


Over the last four decades, African Americans have benefited enormously from initiatives ranging from civil rights legislation to Head Start and the Job Corps. Many of these programs can be traced back to the War on Poverty and Great Society programs launched by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the mid-1960s.

But progress in narrowing the economic divide between blacks and whites has stalled, and the time has come for a new national effort. Unlike in the 1960s, though, the battle can't be run out of Washington. It will require the efforts of all levels of government, as well as companies, schools, and individuals.

The place to start: with children. A recent paper by Nobel economics laureate James J. Heckman of the University of Chicago suggests that early intervention is the best way to eliminate racial gaps in college enrollment. In particular, intensive enrichment programs for preschoolers are effective in raising lifelong earnings.

Greater attention from parents would also help. Studies show that even after accounting for parental income and education, black parents are less likely to read aloud to their preschoolers than white parents, leaving many black children behind before they hit kindergarten.

Once black children enter primary school, smaller classes are immensely beneficial. In a Tennessee experiment called Project STAR, students were randomly assigned to classes with either 13 to 17 students or 22 to 25 students. The average test scores for black children in smaller classes jumped 7 to 10 percentage points. Whites' scores jumped 3 to 4 points.

Improving access to higher education is important as well. The Supreme Court recently affirmed the right of colleges to use race as a "plus factor" in admissions decisions. For most black students, though, the biggest hurdle to attending college is money. Yet because of cuts in federal aid and rising tuition, the Pell Grant, the core federal scholarship for needy students, covers less than 42% of the cost of attending a four-year public university, half that of a generation ago.

Funding cuts have shattered job-training programs -- and this unduly affects African Americans. From 1998 to 2003, the number of people receiving training through the major federal programs fell by three-quarters.

Employers, too, must take action. Detractors say that affirmative action causes companies to hire and promote less qualified people. But a 1999 study by economists Harry J. Holzer, now of Georgetown University, and David Neumark of Michigan State University found "very little compelling evidence" that minorities hired under affirmative action perform worse than whites.

A proven way to increase black mobility is to add African Americans as board directors and top executives. Holzer studied a sample of companies and found that those with black owners or managers drew twice as many black job applicants as other companies. Companies with high-ranking blacks may work harder to retain blacks, even during downturns. "'You came in yesterday, so you're gone tomorrow' is not the way we do business," says Lydia G. Mallett, chief diversity officer at General Mills (GIS) Inc., where two of 13 directors are black.

Finally, when blacks are discriminated against in hiring or firing, companies have to be punished. Yet the staffing of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has shrunk 17% since 1980 while complaints are up 50%.

Yes, there has been progress, but the racial divide has not closed. It's time for America to admit that -- and do something. By Roger O. Crockett


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