© 2023 KUNR
An illustrated mountainscape with trees and a broadcast tower.
Serving Northern Nevada and the Eastern Sierra
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

In Climb Up The Economic Ladder, African-Americans Getting Left Behind


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michelle Martin. My thanks to my colleague Jacki Lyden for filling in for me for the last two days so I could attend to a death in the family. This year marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty and all this year we've been taking a look at how the face of American poverty is changing. And we've been talking about whether our national conversation about poverty matches the reality. Today we want to take a look at how African-Americans and whites may experience poverty differently, even when they live essentially side-by-side in the same city. A group of researchers followed hundreds of poor children in Baltimore for more than 25 years and found race, more than substance abuse, education or criminal history, determined their access to economic opportunity. That research is the centerpiece of the new book " The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, And The Transition To Adulthood." The book's findings are already getting a lot of attention so we've called Karl Alexander, one of the researchers and a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. Professor Alexander thanks for joining us.

KARL ALEXANDER: Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: Also with us, for additional perspective, is writer D. Watkins. He's an adjunct professor at Coppin State University and he's written extensively about growing up poor and black in Baltimore. Professor Watkins, thank you also for joining us.

D WATKINS: Thank you. How's everything?

MARTIN: Great. So, Professor Alexander let me start with you. The study followed 800 children for decades of their lives that's an unusually long period of study. What were you looking for? What motivated this to begin with?

ALEXANDER: Well, we refer to the project as the beginning school study. The intuition at the time was that if getting off to a bumpy start would not agar well for what follows. Getting off to a smooth transition in first grade would smooth the skids all the way along - and in fact we did that. But then, when we got into it, we realized that we had really set the stage for something that would be more ambitious. And so we decided to stay with it a bit longer.

MARTIN: Now about 40 percent of the children you studied were white, the rest were African-American. Did you think that race would play a part in your findings from the beginning?

ALEXANDER: Oh, we absolutely did. The project took a somewhat surprising turn when we looked at some of the information we got from these youngsters when they had exited high school - at age 22 and 28. One of the things that was so striking in our initial review of our findings was that hardly any of these children who grew up in difficult, low-income family circumstances were successful in completing college. So at age 28, the last time we spoke with them, only 4 percent of the children we call urban disadvantaged have a baccalaureate degree and even fewer of these youngsters had attained an associate of arts degree, a two- year degree. So not many of the urban disadvantaged, in the experiences of our youngsters, were moving up in life through the mechanisms that we encourage them to focus in on. Do well at school, play by the rules, do what your teachers tell you and good things will happen. Well, a lot of them played by the rules and did the right things but the good things didn't follow.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us we're talking about different outcomes for poor whites and blacks based on a 25 year study that took place in Baltimore. Our guests are Professor Karl Alexander, one of the researchers in the study, and also D. Watkins, who's an adjunct professor and also a writer who grew up in Baltimore, which is where the study to place. So D. Watkins let me hear from you - when you were growing up, did you know white people growing up? I think a lot of people have this idea that, you know, people - a lot of urban areas lived largely segregated lives, they don't really know anybody who's of a different background or a different race. Did you know white people growing up? And did you see their lives as different from yours?

WATKINS: Housing, police and some schoolteachers I didn't really know - like, all of my schools were all black. The people who I know who went to church went to all black churches. I played sports in all-black rec. centers. I didn't know - I really didn't meet or have any personal relationships with white people until I got into college. Other than like a few teachers that were white that I had a connection with coming up.

MARTIN: Do you remember ever wondering about white people or whether their lives were different from yours?

WATKINS: You know, you think that, you know - what you get is from, you know, like, music and television so, you know, you think, like, well, everyone white person lives like that show "The Wonder Years." It's not something that I spent a lot of time thinking about as a kid but, you know, just looking back in retrospect and, you know, talking about some of the things I write about. The part of Baltimore I grew up in is extremely segregated and you're not going to come across too many white people coming up.

MARTIN: Well, Professor Alexander I think one of the points that the study makes very bluntly is that poor white poverty, particularly in an urban area, gets disappeared somehow, right? Why is that, by the way?

ALEXANDER: Well, that's exactly right. I think if you're understanding what cities like Baltimore is like comes from the media, it's quite clear - you think that the issue of urban poverty is an issue of the African-American poor. But in point of fact, there are pockets of white poverty scattered all throughout Baltimore. Low-income whites and low-income blacks live substantially segregated, according to residential segregation, so they live in parallel but poor whites are there. And one of the interesting patterns that we observed as we tried to make sense out of the experiences of the youngsters in our study group was that poor, white men, men especially, were much more successful in the labor market - despite not being particular successful in school. That is poor, white men had the lowest average level of completed schooling of any of the groups we compared but they had highest earnings and they had the most steady employment over the years after high school.

MARTIN: So everybody who was low-income had a hard time accessing higher education. So that was one of the findings?

ALEXANDER: That's absolutely true.

MARTIN: But poor, white men who didn't finish high school had far better employment prospects than poor black men who didn't finish high school. Why is that?

ALEXANDER: The key to this difference is access to high-pay, high-skill work in the blue-collar workforce and in the main it's the remnants of the Baltimore's industrial economy. It stands out in the experiences of these study youngsters. Forty-Five percent of the white men of working-class background at age 28 were employed in the industrial and construction crafts - so they were plumbers, electricians, mechanics, welders, brick masons. People have the idea that with deindustrialization those kind of positions have just disappeared from the map and it's certainly the case that there are fewer jobs of that sort in the industrial economy - in the urban industrial economy and of those employed in that sector, the whites were earning double what the African-American men were earning. So there's a decided pattern of what we call white privilege or white advantage that presents itself in accessing high-pay, steady work.

MARTIN: And how did they get those jobs? You asked them, how did you get that job. What did they say?

ALEXANDER: In fact, we did ask them - straight out at 22, we said, how did you get your current job? And whites much more often said through family and friends and African-Americans much more than often said on their own. So we think the story here revolves substantially around social networks that are advantageous for some and lacking for others.

MARTIN: Let me ask D. Watkins about this. So, D. how did you - tell me about when you were growing up, what did you think you were going to be doing when you became a grown up? Do you remember thinking about it? What did you want to do? What you think you are going to be doing?

WATKINS: I wanted to play basketball. (Laughing).


MARTIN: Yeah me too.

WATKINS: I wanted to play basketball. But then I had a doctor phase, I had a lawyer phase - I wanted to be all these different things but I ended up outside like everyone else. And it's crazy just listening to this because the things that are in Karl's study it's the things everyone says but, you know, there's always that other side that can argue this and argue that but he just put down the cold hard facts - like, they put down the cold hard facts so now, you know, the things that we say are now confirmed through the study and undeniable. You know, I don't know too many people who can say, hey, you know, my uncle has a plumbing company, we'll teach you the trade, we'll bring you in as an apprentice and, you know, we'll help you out or electricians and things like that. So, no, I wanted to go to college. I wanted to play basketball but, you know, and I even started out on that path and then I just went in a different direction.

MARTIN: So did you know anybody in your life growing up among, as you said, in an African-American environment, like, really not knowing any white people except for the housing, police and teachers who got a job through relatives?

WATKINS: Yeah, but it's not common.

MARTIN: So Professor Alexander, we are down to our last, you know, couple of minutes here and I wanted to hear some - what are the policy implications of this? I mean, how would you like this to inform the way we think about this whole issue now?

ALEXANDER: You can enforce equal employment opportunity laws and things of that sort and absolutely we should but that doesn't speak to the advantages that come through just being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right kinds of people, so I don't have an easy answer I'm afraid to say. But I think we have an understanding of the issue and perhaps people who do work in policy and are more clever than I can figure out some approaches.

MARTIN: Watkins, a final thought from you? Knowing what you know now, about how things work and I am mindful that I heard you say that this was the kind of thing that you always talked about or that heard about or that was rumored but that you never really knew was true. Now that you know that the networks do make a difference, do you have any thoughts about what would've made a difference for you?

WATKINS: What I will say is if we just all just, you know, from the black side - if we just had the ability to reach out and connect more with the other side and, you know, hopefully the city will be less segregated one day but even, you know, if it doesn't go in that direction open up these networks, get some of these trade jobs because out there and learn the skills and just expose young people to more things because, you know, like we talk about college - that's just not going to work for everyone.

ALEXANDER: Do you have time for me to just jump in and add to that?

MARTIN: Very briefly, very briefly.

ALEXANDER: It turns out white men have the highest rate - in our group - have the highest rates of binge drinking, marijuana use and heavy drug use and have arrest records that are comparable to the African-American men. So lots of young people in places like Baltimore have taken misstep along the way. What's so striking is that white men's employment prospects aren't nearly as impaired by, you know, that profile as are African-American men's employment prospects. So if a young African-American man gets in trouble the law or drops out of high school, that really does pose barriers for his getting access to good paying, steady work for white men it's not so much the case.

MARTIN: Import information. That was Professor Karl Alexander joining us from the studios at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. D. Watkins is with us he's a writer and adjunct professor at Coppin State University. He joined us from member station WYPR in Baltimore. Obviously there's a lot to talk about here and so I hope we'll continue to talk about - this will be the first conversation and not the last conversation. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

ALEXANDER: Thank you.

WATKINS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.