African Americans have protested discrimination so long that for some people it’s like background noise, easily ignored. Many say civil rights laws and affirmative-action programs have leveled the field, so anyone who doesn’t succeed now has only himself to blame.
But every day produces more evidence that racism persists and its progeny remain tragic, including high rates of poverty, illness, incarceration, and deaths – some apparently due to police officers’ latent prejudices.
Some theorists believe environment has more to do with a person’s success than race. They attribute the difficulty of African Americans to escape poverty to their being disproportionately poor and poorly educated. But a new study shows those factors aren’t always to blame, especially when it comes to black men.
The study by Stanford and Harvard Universities and the Census Bureau concluded that even when black boys and white boys grow up in families with similar incomes, in the same neighborhood, and go to the same schools, black men end up earning substantially less than their white counterparts.
That disparity was not found with black and white girls. In fact, black women earn slightly more than white women who grew up in similar circumstances.
The study acknowledged that black children are much more likely to grow up in single-parent households, but it said, “When we compare the outcomes of black and white men who grow up in two-parent families with similar levels of income, wealth, and education, we continue to find that the black men still have substantially lower incomes in adulthood.”
An unrelated study may provide additional insight as to why some black men aren’t as successful as white men: It hurts to be tall.
“Height means something different for black men,” said two University of North Carolina researchers in their paper for the National Academy of Sciences. “Height amplifies already problematic perceptions of threat, which can lead to harassment and even injury. For black men, being tall may be less of a boon and more of a burden.”
The researchers looked at more than a million people “stopped and frisked” by New York police before the program ended in 2013 and found the taller the black man, the more likely he was to be stopped. In another study, they showed participants photos of eight white men and eight black men. The taller white men were consistently rated “more competent than threatening” while the taller black men were rated “more threatening than competent.”
None of the studies are meant to suggest that criminality by anyone is excusable or that merit shouldn’t count in hiring and promotions. Rather, the research merely confirms what too many prefer to ignore: Race still matters. And the only way it won’t is for people to pay closer attention to what is happening around them and ask why.
This country has gone from having a president who seemed reluctant to talk about race to avoid being accused of taking sides to a president whose comments have inspired racists. But change doesn’t have to come from the White House. Bill Clinton tried that with his National Conversation on Race and failed. Change requires a commitment by each of us to see a person, and not his skin color.