The Great Migration of the early 20th century colonized some northern cities by descendants of enslaved Africans in search of better living conditions than those they had endured in the former slave states of the south. Some were successful in this endeavor, for a time.
Over the past couple of generations conditions for many African-Americans living in northern cities—from Buffalo to Cleveland—have worsened. The realization that the promise of equality that was the “pull” of the migration (Jim Crow constituting the “push”), the realization that that promise was false, has focused attention on the failure of public education in those cities, the rise of mass incarceration, and the maintenance, if not strengthening, of segregation.
While contemplating the hypocrisy of responsible officials in, say, New York City, with their increasingly tiresome expressions of astonishment that their neighborhoods and schools have been segregated into inequality we should not forget the persistence of similar conditions in some of the core states of the Confederacy.
Old times are truly not forgotten in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. In those states an average of just 15 percent of Black adults are allowed to attain enough education for a Bachelor’s degree or better, compared to an average of 26 percent for White residents of those states. South Carolina is the champion in this matter, supporting 31 percent of its White adults in gaining that amount of education, but only the regional average of 15 percent for its Black residents. At the other end of the educational attainment scale, the region leaves an average of 22 percent of its Black adults without any education qualifications whatsoever, but only 14 percent of its White adults are without high school diplomas. The national averages for these measures are 30 percent for college graduates, 14 percent for those without high school diplomas.
In other words, these states educate White residents to U.S. national averages, leaving their Black residents in an educational condition not found elsewhere among the developed countries of the world.
Just like old times.
As a consequence, or, perhaps, just another part of the same effort at maintaining the status quo pro ante, the average Black family income in these states is just over $34,000, that of White families nearly $64,000. Here the champion is Louisiana, with a $35,000 spread, the $68,000 White family income more than double that of Black families in the state. Hence the contrast, for example, between the Ninth Ward of New Orleans and that city’s Garden District. The average poverty rate of White individuals in these states, 13 percent, is actually lower than the national average (16 percent), and, of course, less than half that of the 32 percent for Black “citizens”. The poverty rate of South Carolina’s Black residents is three times that of their White neighbors.
Income is largely determined by education, at least among people who work for a living, rather than inheriting, say, real estate fortunes. Given the racial disparities in educational attainment in these states, the racial disparities in income follow directly. But how do these racial disparities in educational attainment come about?
A good way to accomplish this is to limit reading ability. If a person is unable to read at, say, the level expected of middle school students in eighth grade, they are unlikely to learn much in their remaining school years, unlikely to earn a meaningful high school diploma (of which more below), unlikely to go to and graduate from college or to earn an income above the poverty level (see above).
Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina do well at this task. The usual measure used for such comparisons is the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ eighth-grade results. These bi-annual tests are reported out by the U.S. Department of Education as Below Basic (or functionally illiterate), Basic (reads with difficulty), Proficient (meets grade level expectations) and Advanced (hurrah!). The NAEP reports include outcomes by race and whether or not a student’s family income makes them eligible for the National Lunch Program.
The dividing line between “eligible” and “ineligible” is a family income of about $44,000. In Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina, about two-thirds of Black students and one-third of White students have family incomes low enough to make them eligible for the National Lunch Program. That is something to keep in mind as we look at reading achievement scores in these states.
First, the overall percentage of Black students in these states who read well enough in eighth grade to be assessed by NAEP as “Proficient or Above” is 11 percent. That is, nearly 90 percent either read eighth grade material with difficulty or not really at all. Thirty-four percent of White students in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina are assessed as “Proficient or Above” when they are tested on eighth grade reading. As a matter of interest, the national percentage for all students in public schools is 33 percent. The schools in these states manage to teach only one-third the percentage of their Black students to read at the national average for all students or as they do for their White students. The champion here is Mississippi, which teaches necessary reading skills to four times the percentage of White students as Black students.
We can look a little more deeply into this. Among the two-thirds of Black students in these states whose family incomes are below the National Lunch Program cut-off, on average just nine percent are taught to read fluently, as compared to 25 percent of the one-third of White students from families with those low incomes. Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina have a tight range of these scores for White students from relatively impoverished families: 24 percent to 26 percent. Despite that, Mississippi is the clear winner, with an 18 percent point spread between the seven percent of its Black students and 25 percent of its White students scoring at the Proficient or Above levels.
Among the one-third of Black students from more prosperous families, 22 percent are brought to the level expected of eighth graders, compared to 41 percent of the two-thirds of White students from prosperous families. Here, it is South Carolina that is the definite winner in the inequality competition with a 23 percent point spread, based on a remarkable 46 percent record with its White students from comparatively prosperous families. Perhaps these racial differences among students from families with similar incomes have something to do with differing qualities of education on offer. Just a thought.
The final step in the public schools toward educational attainment typical of that in developed countries is high school graduation. For the nation as a whole, the graduation rate for Black students is 75 percent, that for White students 88 percent.
Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina report that an average of 78 percent of their Black students graduate, as do 86 percent of their White students. This is remarkable, considering that only 11 percent of their Black students and 34 percent of their White students could read at grade level in middle school and just 15 percent of the former and 26 percent of the latter turn out to be well enough prepared to continue on to a college degree.
The regional outlier in these matters is Georgia. That state, with a similar history of slavery, Civil War devastation, Jim Crow and “massive resistance” to school integration, exhibits socio-economic and education indicators remarkably close to national averages. Educational attainment for Black adults (23 percent B.A. or above) is slightly higher than the national average of 20 percent. Median income for Black families is about the same as the national average for Black families and the poverty rate is lower.
Sixteen percent of Georgia’s Black students in eighth grade are brought to grade level in reading, compared to the national average of 15 percent for Black students, and the percentage of Black students eligible for the National Lunch Program reading at grade level (12 percent) is identical to the national average for eligible Black students. The percentage of African-American students who are ineligible for the National Lunch Program, those from middle class families is 31 percent. That is quite a bit higher than the national average for this group of 26 percent.
It is probably not great praise to observe that Georgia does not do worse than most states in attempting to overcome the heritage of slavery and Jim Crow, but Georgia’s record is certainly notable in contrast to the disgrace of its neighbors. It shows what can be done and the challenges that remain.