Stark numbers, in black and white
By Eric Fleischauer Staff Writer | Posted: Saturday, April 12, 2014 9:30 pm
A recent court filing by the city of Decatur underlines the dramatic disparities between blacks and whites in everything from income and education to home ownership and health.
The study, commissioned by the city as part of its defense to a lawsuit challenging its failure to implement a 2010 referendum requiring a council-manager form of government, suggests a huge racial divide in the quality of life of Decatur citizens.
“We have to confront these numbers,” said Bruce Jones, who as director of Decatur Youth Services works extensively with minority youths, their families and teachers. “We can talk all we want about policies, but finally the disparities shown by these numbers tell us whether we are doing enough.
“The answer is clear. We’re not.”
The data, compiled for the city by demographic and redistricting expert William Cooper, was based primarily on detailed breakdowns compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010 and 2012. The data shows disparities in nearly every facet of life.
One in five black households — 18.5 percent — in Decatur have annual incomes of less than $10,000, well below the poverty level. One in 16 white households, or 6.4 percent, have incomes this low. The median income for black family households in Decatur is $21,938, compared to $52,725 for white families.
One in three blacks in Decatur are below the poverty level, compared to one in 10 whites. Half of black children — 49.7 percent — live in poverty, compared to 16 percent of white children.
Blacks who are seeking jobs are three times more likely than whites to be unemployed, but even if they get a job, the disparities continue. The $15,952 median earnings level of blacks working full time is barely half the $29,589 annual median earnings of whites in Decatur.
The overlap between skin color and poverty creates hard-to-resolve societal problems, said Kevin Lang, an economics professor at Boston University. Lang, author of the book “Poverty and Discrimination,” is a fellow at Stanford University’s Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality.
“You’re living in a world in which race is a fairly obvious trait, and it’s correlated with economic disadvantage and the many problems that are associated with that,” Lang said after reviewing the city-commissioned study. “People are going to make inferences based on what they can see. That’s going to make it tougher.
“Birth is not destiny, but it sure helps to choose the right parents.”
Poverty is about more than income, said Thomas Buchanan, lead program coordinator at Decatur Youth Services with a master’s degree in social work. It is also about a culture of poverty that — while necessary for survival — creates nearly insurmountable barriers to entering the middle class.
“The dominant culture (which is almost exclusively white in Decatur) has a monopoly on defining reality,” Buchanan said. “That translates all the way down to things like language and standards of beauty and dress codes. You have to conform to the dominant culture in order to be perceived as successful. People attempt to do that, but without the resources to conform in an effective way. It limits their ability to participate in any significant way in the dominant culture.”
Because that dominant culture controls the hiring process that is the key to ascendancy to the middle class, conformity to its norms is essential.
Buchanan likens the interaction between upper classes and those in poverty to a barrel of crabs.
“If you put crabs in a barrel with one scrap of food, you determine everything about their existence,” Buchanan said. “What you talk about is the fact that the crabs are fighting. But the issue really is not the crabs fighting. The issue is who put the crabs in the barrel.”
As income and wealth statistics make clear, blacks in Decatur have far fewer resources than their white counterparts. Wealth statistics are not available for Decatur, but nationally the average net worth of black households in 2009 was $5,677, compared to white households with a net worth of $113,149. Home ownership is the main form of net worth for most people, and Decatur statistics are available for that. Nearly two-thirds of black households rent their residences, compared to a rental rate of about one-fourth for white households.
If income and net worth are the scrap of food, the barrel is the confinement that is an inherent consequence of poverty.
“The impoverished culture doesn’t have the ability to be as mobile as someone from the upper class or middle class, either in terms of geography or income,” Buchanan said. “Try to move to Huntsville with $20 in your pocket. You just can’t do it.”
So in a perverse experiment where the dominant culture both creates the barrel and determines how much food goes into the barrel, it also judges the behavior of the crabs in their artificial environment.
“The dominant culture creates the situation and defines the reality of what’s happening,” Buchanan said. “Then the dominant culture comes in and says they’re so primitive or so uneducated or uncivilized that they can’t even take care of themselves.”
That judgment has consequences, because it is the dominant culture — through hiring, through the funding of education, through control over access to health care, even through the rules of the economic system — that determines the extent of the resources available and the extent of the confinement.
“If you take those same crabs from the barrel and dump them on the beach, they won’t mess with each other,” Buchanan said. “If you confine people to an area and limit the resources they have to survive, what do they do? It’s not peculiar to black people. You look through history, and how much violence, how many wars, have resulted from limited resources?”
Jones said the numbers are revealing, but fail to communicate the human toll that comes with desperation, a sense of futility and anger.
“Too often I see them internalize that anger,” Jones said. “They self-destruct. They have all these frustrations and see no way to change anything. That’s when you see the alcohol and drugs, and too often the crime.”
Many programs at Decatur Youth Services, including boxing and judo classes, are designed to serve as productive outlets for that frustration.
“These programs provide a safe place for kids to hang out with positive adults who are encouraging them daily,” Jones said. “They also give the kids discipline, an outlet for anger and a sense of self-worth, all the things kids need to grow up healthy, whole and productive.”
It is the nature of poverty, said Sam King, head of King James Communications Alternative School, to be cyclical. The first thing he does when taking in a new student in his GED and vocational program is to conduct a home interview. More often than not, the roots of his student’s problems are found in their environment.
“A challenge I have had is raising their self-esteem,” said King, administrator at Redeeming Love Outreach Ministries. “They have been surrounded by negativity all their lives. Mostly what they know is how to hustle, the wrong way, and they see it as a way of life.”
He recalls visiting one of his students in jail several years ago.
“There were three generations in the same cell,” King said. “My student was in there, his daddy was in there and his granddaddy. And I said to myself, ‘What chance does this kid have in life?’ He ended up doing prison time, because that’s all he knew.”
Reviewing the study showing the stark disparities between whites and blacks in Decatur, he shakes his head at the enormity of the challenge.
“We may have to deal with one category at a time,” King said. “We change it one kid at a time. We as a community need to reach out and help these individuals that are struggling. We won’t always be successful, but as a community we have the resources to change these numbers.”
King shares frustration at a system created by a dominant culture that does not always see the benefit of giving every child a chance at success.
“History has proven that those in financial power will lean toward whatever measures that will keep them in power,” King said. “Those in power can hide behind laws. Those laws may be no more than red tape to deter success, to prevent a change in these disparities.”
But King, like Jones and Buchanan, focuses less on changing the system than helping people cope with it.
“I try to make sure they face the facts. The fact is, you were raised in an impoverished situation. The fact is, you have not completed your education. They have to be held accountable for their actions,” King said. “The system — the educational system, the court system, the police system — has not always been fair to black children.
“One individual can’t fix the system, so what we try to do is work the kid through these systems so they can be successful in life.”
King’s one-on-one approach is essential, said Lang, but slow. Noticeable change requires a system that supports programs of intervention.
“To the extent you want to see a dramatic change in the correlation between race and adult outcomes, when you’re starting with a very strong correlation between economic disadvantage and race, I don’t see how you do that without some programs,” Lang said.
King said Decatur, more than most communities, has the will and the resources to initiate and expand on programs that make a difference.
“Right here in Decatur we need to make plans that work for us,” King said. “We should come together to do it. There are things that we can do. And there’s money in Decatur. Are we willing to invest in our own people? That kind of spirit will help us to crush all kinds of ethnic lines.”
King’s efforts are not always successful. Last week, he said, he spent an evening visiting a former student at the hospital. The student rejected the message of hope and accountability, King said, and he was recovering from two bullet wounds.
Yet King still finds hope in the next generation, and it is a hope rooted partly in biology.
“We have a higher rate of mixed students, where one parent is white and the other is black, than we’ve ever had in our educational system,” King said. “You can’t hate the white man when your children are half white, and vice versa. It is coming to the point where our children are not buying into the hatred that the older generation bought into. God is using another generation to fix things that we procrastinated on and couldn’t fix, to show us that we can come together.”
Eric Fleischauer can be reached at 256-340-2435 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/DD_Fleischauer”>@DD_Fleischauer.
Population: 55,996 residents
Blacks: 22 percent
Whites: 63 percent
Hispanic: 12 percent
Other: 3 percent
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2012 estimate