Why Black Financial Progress Is Running Into Speed Bumps

Wage gap grows between races. Black middle-class incomes rise more slowly than those of whites.

Almost 40 years after civil rights ended legal segregation in homes, schools, and work, America's largest minority has surmounted daunting obstacles. But despite significant progress in the prosperous 1960s and 1970s, the journey of African-Americans to equality is hitting a cul-de-sac.

Black leaders and others say it's threatened by endemic racism and, more recently, by a mounting effort to dismantle hard-won civil-rights legislation.

While there is an affluent middle class, the gap between the rich and the poor African-American has grown over the past decade. Experts worry that the inequities will get even worse, leaving an increasing number of America's 34 million blacks feeling insecure.

"The feeling of discontent is much, much stronger than the policymakers are aware," says Stan Bowie, a professor at Florida International University who specializes in American-African families. "Something has to be done with the people at the bottom. They are feeling hopeless out there."

"Progress has come to a standstill," says Joe Feagin, a professor of sociology at the University of Florida whose book, "Living with Racism: The Black Middle Class Experience," is based on hundreds of interviews with black professionals. "After the 1990s, things started sliding backward. As a group [blacks] are worse off in general than they were 15 years ago."

One need not look beyond Patrick Eloi for evidence that some African-Americans are better off than ever before. As president of Automated Business Machine here, Mr. Eloi boasts an enviable career, a new home in chic Pembrook Pines, and private school for his two young boys.

Mr. Eloi is among the growing number of black Americans whose education, employment, and income levels have hit new highs. From 1960 to 1994, for instance, the proportion of blacks graduating from college quadrupled to 12.9 percent, although the gap with whites is still large.

Blacks hold more higher-paying professional, managerial, and technical jobs than ever before.

Here in Miami, one of the top construction companies in the nation, Solo Construction, is black-owned. "It's not often you can see black businesses that are members of Fortune 500 companies," says Beatrice Toussaint, head of the black business association in Miami, of the $34 million firm. "You didn't have that 30 years ago."

Growing black middle class

Certainly statistics bear out that there is a rising American black middle class. From 1967 to 1996, for instance, the proportion of blacks earning more than $50,000 rose to 7.4 percent from 1.7 percent. For whites, it rose from 10.8 percent to 18.8 percent.

Still, destitution remains a stubborn problem. Although the number of blacks living in poverty is at an all-time low, more than twice as many African-Americans still live below the poverty line than whites do - 28 percent versus 11 percent.

One reason is that wage inequities are as wide - if not worse - today than they were 30 years ago. To be sure, a lot of progress was made between 1950 and 1970. Since then, however, the gap has remained constant, with blacks earning 63 cents on the dollar compared with whites.

Perhaps more worrisome, analysts say, is that blacks still lag far behind in terms of their status as measured by wealth. This includes everything from the amount of money they have invested in stocks to their equity in cars and homes.

Less weatlth

The median wealth level for African-Americans today is $4,300 versus $43,000 for whites. One contributing factor: Blacks have inherited far less money than whites, making it harder for them to pay for such things as college tuition for their children or plan for retirement.

Exacerbating the economic problems for many blacks, some argue, is the movement to roll back affirmative-actions laws. They believe the push in some states to eliminate race-based admissions at universities will undermine the ability of minorities to progress educationally - and thus in the work force.

At the same time, some state and local governments - such as Dade County here - have rewritten contract rules to make them "race neutral." The result, says Adora Obi Nweeze, president of the Miami-Dade branch of the NAACP, is "hundreds of black contractors out of jobs."

Others point to the downsizing of government as a problem for blacks. Government jobs have long been considered a stable source of employment for minorities. Here in Miami, for instance, where the black jobless rate is 14 percent, county leaders recently cut 158 jobs - many of them held by African-Americans.

The result of all this is a growing feeling of unease among many black professionals. Take Miami lawyer Reggie Clyne. He is one of only 300 black attorneys in the Miami area. After years of working in a large law firm, Mr. Clyne hung out his own shingle.

One lawyer's lament

Business is good, but he estimates he would be making between $30,000 to $80,000 more per year if he were white.

"When we started the firm people looked for black-owned firms," says Clyne. "They no longer do. It's increasingly difficult to find clients."

Researchers say it's a familiar pattern. After rising on the ladder of the corporate hierarchy, many black professionals "soon hit a concrete ceiling beyond which they can't move," says Mr. Feagin.

In many cases, he says, blacks' careers end with "dead-end" jobs such as manager of community affairs.

Blacks themselves see it as a lingering subtle form of racism. Eloi says he experienced it firsthand.

He says no banks were willing to loan him the $50,000 he needed to start his computer company. Instead he relied on his own savings and help from his family. Years later, he remains matter of fact about it.

"Do we experience prejudice? Of course we do," Mr. Eloi says. "It's something I've learned to live with."

For Clyne, prejudice comes in different ways.

"I don't play golf with the big Riviera clubs because they don't allow blacks there," says Clyne. "I don't have access to big CEOs."

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