Limits of racial progress


Racial attitudes among Americans have not improved, and may have regressed, in the four years since the nation elected its first African-American president, a new poll concludes. Those results aren’t encouraging, but the genuine lack of progress many black Americans have experienced is even more troubling.

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The poll, conducted by the Associated Press, found that a slight majority — 51 percent — of Americans now express prejudice toward blacks, whether or not they recognize their own biases. That’s up from the 48 percent who expressed the same feelings in a similar 2008 survey. Most Americans also expressed anti-Hispanic attitudes, the poll reports.

Some of this might be a backlash from the historic election of America’s first black president, a milestone that gave millions of African-Americans a new sense of pride, hope, and aspiration.

The tough economic times that grip much of the nation can aggravate inter-group hostility. And an increasingly polarized and coarse political culture has brought much bile and venom to the surface, including in the arena of race.

But racial attitudes are not the only important measure. Much of the nation — black and white — has focused on the progress represented by Mr. Obama’s election, but other indicators, closer to the ground, are far less hopeful. America has an African-American man in the Oval Office, and nearly 1 million black men locked up in its prisons and jails.

The disproportionate impact of the nation’s criminal justice and prison system on black Americans is one of the many problems facing poor African-Americans that the country’s leaders are virtually silent about. The indicators of black progress — unemployment rates, high school graduation rates — would look far worse if the 1 million incarcerated African-Americans were left in the equation.

Others ailments that erode African-American progress include growing disparities of wealth, high rates of HIV infection, and the resegregation of public schools, with millions of black children denied a decent education.

Writing in the New York Times recently, Columbia University political science professor Fredrick Harris pointed out that Mr. Obama’s State of the Union address in 2011 was the first by any president since 1948 not to mention poverty or the poor.

White racists are not the only ones who are not talking about these issues. Neither are progressive whites or most African-American leaders.

Until they do, the appalling lack of progress that many black Americans experience, especially the poor, will continue to fester on many fronts.