Being Optimistic While Black

Blacks are reporting optimism about their progress and prospects in areas such as financial security, home ownership and employment.  Economic data, paint a stark contrast to black optimism.  Two key areas of black socioeconomic well-being are unemployment and wealth.  These are two areas in which blacks fare especially poorly relative to other races.  Since 1972, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics started keeping tabs on labor force characteristics by demographics, including race and ethnicity, the trend has been a demonstrated ratio of 2:1 with respect to the unemployment rate between whites and blacks (Darity & Hamilton, 2012).[1]  Yet, in light of this gap there is now an upward trend in black attitudes about their current economic situation.

In terms of wealth, since the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) began in 1984, the lowest the white to black wealth gap ratio has ever been is 7:1, and that was in 1995.  Since 1984, the gap has remained between 10:1 and 12:1.  In 2009, the white to black wealth gap nearly doubled, from 11:1 to 19.1. Again, in light of these stats, blacks are reporting their lives have improved in recent years.

Based on this economic data, my question is what are blacks so optimistic about?  On its face, black optimism could be cause for celebration.  Indeed 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation granted blacks freedom and citizenship and 49 years after the Passage of Civil Rights for blacks, black optimism might signal blacks feel obstacles keeping them from attaining the American dream are no longer a hindrance.  What blacks feel and think about their progress and prospects, however, are dollars and disparities from what blacks’ real economic situation is.

Dr. King’s 1957 address “A Realistic Look at the Question of Progress in the Area of Race Relations,”[2] cautioned against extreme optimism.  He said the extreme optimist would conclude, based on the gains blacks made “…that the problem is just about solved, and that we can sit comfortably by the wayside and wait on the coming of the inevitable.”

It seems we are observing the outcome of Dr. King’s warning against extreme optimism.  Although racial disparities exist, blacks report things are not as bad as they once were. They are reporting their lives have improved from a few short years ago.  There is no need to act collectively, protest, blame others or complain about inequality.  If blacks just work hard enough and remain optimistic, they can overcome racial inequality.

So, is being optimistic while black the antagonist of black socioeconomic progress?  While it is okay to be optimistic, it is more important to be realistic and ensure that attitudes reflect reality!


[1] Darity, W. and Hamilton, D. 2012. Bold Policies for Economic Justice Review of Black Political Economy, 39(1):79-85. DOI: 10.1007/s12114-011-9129-8

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