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Study examines black Virginians' economic outcomes

Monday - 4/30/2012, 3:01pm  ET

Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. - Black Virginians have made educational and economic gains over the past three decades, but they continue to lag far behind their white counterparts, according to a University of Virginia study.

About 1.5 million Virginians, or about 19 percent of the state's population, identify themselves as black or African-American, according to the 2010 Census.

Even among people with the same education level and number of hours worked, household income is substantially higher for white than black Virginians and the unemployment rate is higher for black Virginians, according to the study released Monday by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

The median income for households headed by black Virginians was $40,000 in 2010, 38 percent lower than the $65,000 median household income for whites, according to the study.

"Though incomes have risen for both black and white households, blacks have seen little relative gain," demographer Michele P. Claibourn said in the study, which relied on U.S. Census data, the 2010 American Community Survey and unemployment statistics.

At any given level of education, full-time working black Virginians earn less than whites, according to the study. The sharpest inequities occur among those with no high school diploma and those with graduate degrees, the study shows. White Virginians who didn't graduate from high school earn a median income of $25,000, 20 percent higher than the $20,000 earned by black people who didn't finish high school. White Virginians with graduate degrees earn a median income of $90,000, 20 percent higher than black Virginians with the same education.

The study notes that the economic and educational differences in part reflect the lasting effects of structural inequalities that once restricted black people's access to education, housing markets and other means of advancement. But it didn't examine more detailed factors that could explain racial gaps in income and unemployment, for example, including occupational choices, hiring patterns, discrimination or other issues.

"What the study does show is that we have to be asking the questions about why the disparities exist," Claibourn said. "We need to better understand why."

The percentage of white Virginians graduating from high school has risen steadily since World War II. The percentage of black students obtaining high school diplomas also rose sharply between 1960 and 1970, a decade after Virginia agreed to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that mandated desegregating public schools.

Eighty-one percent of black people and 89 percent of white people at least 25 years old have a high school diploma, according to the study.

But black Virginians still are far less likely than whites to obtain a college degree, even though the number of college-educated black people has risen steadily since 1972, the year all the state's public higher-education institutions fully opened to black students. Despite black college attainment being at an all-time high, the racial gap in college education has grown since then as whites have outpaced black Virginians at getting degrees.

By 2010, 37 percent of white Virginians 25 and older had at least a bachelor's degree, compared with 20 percent of black Virginians.

Despite income gains, black people are still more likely to grow up poor, with 20 percent in poverty, compared with 9 percent among whites. Twenty-nine percent of black children lived in poverty in Virginia in 2010, the study showed.

Among Virginia's black families, 51 percent rent their homes, compared with 27 percent of white families.

"Owning versus renting speaks to the accumulation of wealth, including assets one has to use to help a child go to college or transmit to future generations," Claibourn said. "That limits the ability of the black community to use those assets for continued progress."

The effects of local governments requiring real estate covenants that barred the sale of homes to black people, mortgage-lending discrimination and other practices that occurred decades ago still persist because such measures prevented the acquisition and transmission of assets to help the next generation improve economically, she said.

"This isn't that long ago, and the history isn't that old, so it's not surprising that we'd see reflections of that history several decades later," she said. "We kind of forget that discriminatory history is quite recent."

The report also measured residential segregation, and found that more than 75 percent of black Virginians live in the state's largest metropolitan areas. In the Richmond and the Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News metro areas, many neighborhoods in the urban core are more than 75 percent black, while areas surrounding the urban core are less than 30 percent black.

It found that residential segregation is starkest in the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria metropolitan area, where most black people live in the eastern corner of the District of Columbia and in Prince George's County, Md.

The study also traces the geographic distribution of black Virginians since the Civil War, when they primarily were slaves, and found that today's patterns echo historic patterns, in that black people were concentrated in southeast Virginia and the southern Piedmont regions, areas once dominated by plantation agriculture and tobacco.


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