Measuring Progress

Have African Americans progressed economically over time? That’s a no-brainer. How much we have progressed, however, is another question.
The 1960s are remembered for the civil rights movement and the pivotal 1963 March on Washington that “changed America forever” recalls Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who, at 23, was the youngest person to speak at the march. (View our complete March on Washington 40th Anniversary package at When the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, the African American voting population was 58.5% compared with the national percentage, which was around 69.3%. The percentage of African Americans with bachelor’s degrees was 4.7%, while the national percentage was 9.4%.

During the 1970s, affirmative action led to new opportunities in the workplace and gave rise to a thriving black middle class. The African American poverty rate declined, dropping from 55.1% in 1965 to 33.5% in 1970 (which was still more than two-and-a-half times the national rate of 12.6%).

The recession in the 1980s, coupled with a loss in manufacturing jobs and a decline in wages for blue collar and service workers, severely impacted African Americans. The unemployment rate for blacks in 1980 was 14.3%, twice the national rate of 7.2%.

During the economic expansion of the 1990s and the Internet boom, homeownership among African Americans was on the rise. In 1995, the unemployment and poverty rates for African Americans were 10.4% and 29.3%, respectively; some 42.7% of African Americans were homeowners.

The new millennium gave way to a larger African American population—34,658,000 from 22,580,289 in 1970. African Americans with bachelor’s degrees reached 16.6% and those who owned homes rose to 47.2%. A depressed economy sent 7.6% of African Americans to the unemployment lines as of September 2003, compared with 4.0% of all Americans.

No one can predict what the future holds, but Lewis contends, “I hear young people say that nothing has changed [in 30 years], and I want to say, ‘Come walk in my shoes.'” African Americans will continue to progress as long as we keep marching forward.