In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson made a speech at the University of Michigan in which he introduced his vision for the future. Called “The Great Society”, one of its key goals was to address and, hopefully, end the social and economic disparities between White and Black citizens.
This, of course heralded the Voting Rights Act and other legislation intended to even our racial playing field.
So how did that work out?
The reason I ask is that a new book, titled “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again” has just been published, with its authors, Shaylyn Romney Garrett and
And how do they justify this conclusion? Well, in their just-published op-ed for the New York Times, Ms. Garrett and Mr. Putnam lay out some pretty persuasive evidence:
In measure after measure, positive change for Black Americans was actually faster in the decades before the civil rights revolution than in the decades after. For example,
The life expectancy gap between Black and white Americans narrowed most rapidly between about 1905 and 1947, after which the rate of improvement was much more modest. And by 1995 the life expectancy ratio was the same as it had been in 1961. There has been some progress in the ensuing two decades, but this is due in part to an increase in premature deaths among working-class whites.
The Black/white ratio of high school completion improved dramatically between the 1940s and the early 1970s, after which it slowed, never reaching parity. College completion followed the same trajectory until 1970, then sharply reversed.
Racial integration in K-12 education at the national level began much earlier than is often believed. It accelerated sharply in the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education. But this trend leveled off in the early 1970s, followed by a modest trend toward resegregation.
Income by race converged at the greatest rate between 1940 and 1970. However, as of 2018, Black/white income disparities were almost exactly the same as they were in 1968, 50 years earlier. Even taking into account the emergence of the Black middle class, Black Americans on the whole have experienced flat or downward mobility in recent decades.
Long-run data on national trends in voting by race is patchy, but the South saw a dramatic increase in Black voter registration between 1940 and 1970, followed by decline and stagnation. What data we have on national Black voter turnout indicate that nearly all of the gains toward equality with white voter turnout occurred between 1952 and 1964, before the Voting Rights Act passed, then almost entirely halted for the rest of the century.
These data reveal a too-slow but unmistakable climb toward racial parity throughout most of the century that begins to flatline around 1970 — a picture quite unlike the hockey stick of historical shorthand.
Are Garrett and Putnam claiming that Black people were better off during the shameful, inexcusable decades of segregation and overt anti-Black laws we had?
No they are not – as is made clear further on in their commentary (which I urge you to read in its entirety).
Their point is that the desired results – which, I assume, are supported by every decent person – have not been achieved; they have stagnated or regressed.
Is that because “The Great Society” initiatives were flawed? Because they were not flawed but, over time, we strayed so far from them that their benefits have been wiped out? Some other reason?
What do you think?