Skip to main content
Social Mobility Memos

Behind the headlines: 15 memos on race and opportunity

Richard V. Reeves

This year shone a bleak light on the deep racial divides of the U.S. The flash-points of Ferguson, Baltimore and Chicago gave new impetus to movements to reform the criminal justice system and policing. But behind the headlines, the evidence for wide, stubborn race gaps on economic and social indicators is perhaps more troubling still. 

Especially for black Americans, race gaps in family formation, employment, household income, wealth, educational quality, and neighborhood segregation have shown little­—if any—sign of improvement in recent years. The very first Social Mobility Memos was about the barriers to black upward mobility, and in recent months, we have been focusing increasingly on issues of race, place, and opportunity, and here, to close 2015, we recap 15 of our pieces on the subject, including pieces from our colleague Jonathan Rothwell on college, drugs and neighborhoods, and the first Brookings piece from our new nonresident scholar, William Julius Wilson. 

Our hope is that 2016 will see a much greater focus on race and opportunity in America. 

1. Five Bleak Facts on Black Opportunity, Richard V. Reeves and Edward Rodrigue

What would Martin Luther King Jr. think of America in 2015 if he’d lived to see his eighty-sixth birthday? No doubt, he’d be pleased by the legal and political advances of black Americans, crowned by the election and re-election of President Obama.

2. Four charts that show the opportunity gap isn’t going away, Richard V. Reeves

Child poverty rates are coming down slowly, according to figures from the Pew Research Center, except among one racial group: African Americans. This is the latest reminder that the economic gap between black and white Americans is not closing over time. Indeed, on some dimensions, it is widening.

3. Obama’s Post-Presidency? Tackling the Social Mobility Challenge for Black Men, Richard V. Reeves

President Obama’s initiative to boost opportunities for young black men—My Brother’s Keeper—looks to be a post-presidential plan, as much as presidential one. Valerie Jarrett, his closest aide, said that it was a vocation the president and first lady Michelle Obama will undertake “for the rest of their lives…That’s a moral, social responsibility that they feel will transcend the time that he’s president.”

4. School readiness gaps are improving, except for black kids, Richard V. Reeves

Between 1998 and 2010, inequality in school readiness—in terms of math, reading, and behavior—declined quite significantly, according to Reardon and Portilla’s analysis of ECLS data, being presented today at the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management Annual Conference. This positive trend can be seen for gaps in both income and race (or at least, for Hispanic-white differences).

5. Rich Neighborhood, Poor Neighborhood: How Segregation Threatens Social Mobility, Patrick Sharkey

Racial segregation in American cities has declined slowly, but steadily over the past four decades. This is good news. Over the same timeframe, however, the level of economic segregation has been rising. Compared to 1970, the rich are now much more likely to live in different communities than the poor.

6. Segregation and concentrated poverty in the nation’s capital, Stuart M. Butler and Jonathan Grabinsky

The social mobility gap between black and white Americans has barely narrowed in the last decades, and sharp differences in access to opportunity persist. This racial opportunity gap can, in part, be traced back to the neighborhoods where whites and blacks grow up: research from urban sociologists like Patrick Sharkey and Robert Sampson shows the damaging effects racial segregation and concentrated neighborhood poverty can have on children’s life chances. Washington, D.C. is a case in point.

7. The other side of Black Lives Matter, William Julius Wilson

Several decades ago I spoke with a grieving mother living in one of the poorest inner-city neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side. A stray bullet from a gang fight had killed her son, who was not a gang member. She lamented that his death was not reported in any of the Chicago newspapers or in the Chicago electronic media.

8. Guns and race: The different worlds of black and white Americans, Richard V. Reeves and Sarah Holmes

“The nation’s consciousness has been raised by the repeated acts of police brutality against blacks. But the problem of public space violence—seen in the extraordinary distress, trauma and pain many poor inner-city families experience following the killing of a family member or close relative—also deserves our special attention.”

9. Measuring the Racial Opportunity Gap, Richard V. Reeves and Quentin Karpilow

The U.S. is sharply divided by race, not least in terms of the opportunities for children—a point that a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation vividly shows. At every life stage, there are gaps between kids of different colors.

10. How the War on Drugs Damages Black Social Mobility, Jonathan Rothwell

The social mobility of black Americans has suffered collateral damage from the “War on Drugs.” Being convicted of a crime has devastating effects on the employment prospects and incomes of ex-felons and their children, as my Brookings colleagues and other scholars have found. These findings are often used to motivate efforts to reduce criminal behavior. They should also motivate changes in our criminal justice system, which unfairly punishes black Americans—often for victimless crimes that whites are at least as likely to commit.

11. Black Students at Top Colleges: Exceptions, Not the Rule, Jonathan Rothwell

A generation has been lost in the journey towards race equality in terms of income. The income gap between blacks and whites has been stuck since 1980. Why? Dozens of factors count, of course, but one in particular is worth further exploration: the underrepresentation of black students in elite colleges. As I noted in a previous blog, this could help to explain why blacks earn less than whites, even in the same occupation and with the same level of education.

12. The stubborn race and class gaps in college quality, Jonathan Rothwell

Increasing the number of low-income adults going to—and through—college is an important step towards greater social mobility and reduced income inequality. College is also an important tool for tackling race gaps. But the challenge is not just about quantity: college quality counts for a good deal, too.

13. Single black female BA seeks educated husband: Race, assortative mating and inequality, Edward Rodrigue and Richard V. Reeves

There is a growing trend in the United States towards assortative mating—a clunky phrase that refers to people’s tendency to choose spouses with similar educational attainment. Rising numbers of college-educated women play a key role in this change. It is much easier for college graduates to find and marry each other when there are more equal numbers of each gender within an educational bracket.

14. Sociology’s revenge: Moving to Opportunity (MTO) revisited, Jonathan Rothwell

Neighborhoods remain the crucible of social life, even in the internet age. Children do not stream lectures—they go to school. They play together in parks and homes, not over Skype. Crime and fear of crime are experienced locally, as is the police response to it.

15. Space, place, race: Six policies to improve social mobility, Richard V. Reeves and Allegra Pocinki

Place matters: that’s the main message of Professor Raj Chetty’s latest research. This supports the findings of a rich body of evidence from social scientists, but Chetty is able to use a large dataset to provide an even stronger empirical foundation. Specifically, he finds that children who move from one place to another have very different outcomes, depending on whether they move to a low-opportunity city or a high-opportunity one.

Get daily updates from Brookings