Gap Closes Between Blacks and Whites

Gains by African-Americans outpace those of US as a whole, as economy carries blacks closer to parity.

On the long march toward equality, black Americans are making rapid strides, narrowing the economic gap between blacks and whites to a degree that some analysts now call "unprecedented."

Poverty is declining. Unemployment is falling. Optimism is growing. And it's happening at record rates.

The change is mostly driven by the economy: A higher minimum wage and a tight labor market mean more of the nation's poor - many of whom are black - can find decent-paying jobs.

It's affecting everything from the stock market to politics - including today's elections. To be sure, the black-white economic gap persists, and racism often lingers, but more black Americans are achieving the economic stability that has eluded so many for so long.

Among the gains is a decline in poverty. In 1989, 30.8 percent of blacks qualified as poor. By 1997, 26.5 percent did. Poverty among whites actually grew slightly during that time (and now stands at 11 percent).

"That's huge progress for blacks," says Jared Bernstein, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. "People don't realize the magnitude of the decline. It's totally unprecedented."

Moreover, incomes for African-American households jumped 16.8 percent, or $3,600, in the past six years - nearly three times faster than incomes for the nation as a whole, according to new Census Bureau data.

The progress isn't lost on people like Patrick Isom, an executive with the National Futures Association in New York. He grew up in the projects in East Harlem. His father has long worked for the post office.

Although his career has barely begun, "I'm already making as much as my dad," he says with a hint of amazement. He and his wife own a new three-bedroom duplex in an upscale block in Harlem. They're expecting their second child.

Many other black Americans recognize the change. In a poll last month, 51 percent said they're better off financially than they were last year. Just 32 percent of whites said the same in the survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which monitors black issues.

That economic security affects the way blacks view President Clinton: Eighty-five percent said he's doing a good job.

"When people say they're doing well financially, they tend to give good [presidential] job ratings," says David Bositis, the center's chief political analyst. "That could make the difference for Clinton and the Democrats this year."

Democrats, recognizing blacks' potential to bail them out in this scandal-tinged election year, have courted them aggressively.

Blacks are also starting to be wooed by Wall Street firms such as American Express Co. With their spending power jumping from $300 billion in 1990 to $500 billion today, they are seen as a distinct market worthy of pursuing.

The recruitment appears to be working: Fifty-seven percent of black households with annual incomes of more than $50,000 have money in the stock market, according to a survey by Yankelovich Partners in New York.

There are no data to compare past decades, but observers say that number seems to represent a shift from traditional black investment choices of insurance policies, real estate, or certificates of deposit.

The Walt Disney Co. is joining in, too. In June, it partnered with Black Entertainment Television to open a black-oriented club called SoundStage at its Pleasure Island attraction in Florida. BET plans to expand SoundStage to other cities.

Entrepreneur Kevin Fisher watches this progress from The Black Library, his pushcart full of black-oriented books at Boston's Dudley Square commuter bus station. He sees more blacks partaking in that quintessential middle-class activity of buying - not borrowing - books.

An avid reader, Mr. Fisher got the idea for the business while working in financial services in Boston. He'd often read during breaks at work, and co-workers would ask him where he got all the books. "Lots of them were by African-American authors and aren't available at many bookstores," he says. So he started ordering them for friends.

Now, 30 percent of his brisk business is in how-to volumes, including many financial-planning guides. The others are mostly fiction - Terry McMillan, Toni Morrison, and others. "I'm kind of amazed it's going so well," he says of his business.

The major cause for the recent success, most observers say, is the economy. Other factors are rising education rates and less overt racism.

Still, the black-white gap persists. The black poverty rate remains more than double that for whites, and income of middle-class blacks is about 60 percent of that for middle-class whites.

Racism lingers too. Mr. Isom, the executive from Harlem, says, "If I go into work dressed down - in jeans and a hat - people look at me funny. They say, 'You look different,' " he says. The implication is that "they might be afraid of me if they saw me on the street."

Yet his success proves to him that the American dream is available to a wider range of people. As he puts it, "You can achieve big things, regardless of where you grew up."

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