The Worst States for Black Americans

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The obstacles facing black Americans in the United States begin in early childhood — and they have long-lasting effects. Educational outcomes among African American children in five of the worst states for black Americans were identified by the Annie E. Casey Foundation as worse than the average for African-American children nationwide.

Nationally, less than one in five black adults had attained at least a bachelor’s degree as of last year, versus a rate of nearly one in three among the white population. While the percentage of black adults with at least a bachelor’s degree in some of the states on our list was relatively high, the education gap between black and white state residents was larger than the national gap in nine of the worst states.

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Although higher education leads to higher employment and better wages, it “does not eliminate inequality,” said Wilson. The unemployment rate among college-educated black Americans is still about twice that of college-educated white Americans.

Of course, there is no single solution to job inequality. Even highly educated black Americans cannot overcome centuries of segregation and outright discrimination. Both Wilson and Asante-Muhammad pointed out that many people are hired because they know someone, for example. If black Americans are not part of a particular social network, their chances of getting hired at a particular job are smaller. For people who have been historically segregated, four years of elite schooling is not the same thing as “having generation after generation that can connect you to different opportunities through friends and family,” Asante-Muhammad explained.

Inequalities in economic outcomes also persist. A typical black household made just 62.3% of the median income of white households in 2013. Among the worst states, differences in income and poverty were nearly all worse than the national difference. In some states, such as Wisconsin and Minnesota, the median income of black households was roughly half that of white households.

The economic gaps may actually be understated. This is because wealth, which includes assets, such as stocks and real estate holdings, as well as ready access to credit, are not captured by measures of income alone and can often have greater effects on racial inequalities. “Wealth is that which allows you to bridge economic challenges and difficulties,” such as periods of unforeseen expenses or job loss, Asante-Muhammad explained. Wealth is also used to acquire assets like homes and businesses, which are often transferred intergenerationally.

In fact, less than 42% of black households were homeowners, while more than 71% of white households owned a home as of 2013. Differences in rates of homeownership are often far more extreme in the worst states for black Americans. In Minnesota, for example, three out of four white households owned their homes. Meanwhile, only one in four black households in the state owned their home.

Laws can also have a discriminatory effect on black Americans. For example, longer sentences for offenses involving crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine — which are essentially identical — contributed to the disproportionate incarceration rates of black Americans. Wilson explained that crack cocaine was “an epidemic in the African American community.” Because the problem “was more prevalent in those communities, they were disproportionately affected by the sentencing associated with that.” In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act passed by Congress reduced the sentencing disparity.

Black Americans were more than five times as likely to go to prison than their white peers as of 2013, and the problem was considerably worse in all 10 states on our list. People with criminal records are more likely to get lower-paying jobs. Further, “When you’re in a community where there is a lack of economic opportunities, people seek alternatives, and unfortunately a lot of those alternatives are criminal,” Wilson said.

While racial inequality is a complicated issue, this does not mean that there are no solutions. “Even if we ended the over-incarceration of African Americans, we’d still have this great racial economic inequality that really will only be dealt with through massive investments, living wage jobs, homeownership opportunities, equal access to education, health care, all of those things, so there is no one solution. It’s not just education, it’s not just health care, it’s a mixture,” Asante-Muhammad said.

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These are the worst states for black Americans.