In the Great Drag Race of Life, a paint job shouldn’t decide who wins and loses. But it does — IF it happens to be in the right sponsor’s colors. And especially if you get a couple car lengths at the line for having those colors. Combine a head start with the right connections, and the other guy is destined to lose; the only question is by how much.
The Huffington Post recently published an article with these two charts, a kind of “Matrix of Upward Mobility” among blacks and whites in America. And the results are pretty telling, if not entirely surprising for most of us.
For a bit of explanation: This chart is divided up into quintiles, or 20-percent slices of the income spectrum. On the left are the poorest, those born into the lowest 20 percent. On the far right (ahem) are those born into the richest 20 percent. And right off the bat, you’ll notice a certain peculiarity: there IS no fifth column.
The vertical boxes, shaded in blue, show where people from those groups are at 40 years old. The darker the blue, the poorer that group is at 40 years old. So, let’s take a look and see how these two different groups fare in terms of where they start out, vs where they end up at 40 years old:
Right off the bat, you notice the first peculiarity: There IS NO fifth column for blacks. No, that’s not an omission on the HuffPo’s part. It’s because the number of blacks born into the top 20 percent is so low that it’s statistically irrelevant. Blacks born into money are an anomaly. But, let’s break it down a little further:
- For whites born into Q1, about 16 percent will become “rags to riches” types. For blacks, it’s 3 percent.
- The overwhelming majority of blacks born into poverty (78 percent) will never make it to the 40 percent mark. For whites born into poverty, it’s the other way around: 68 percent will make it past the 40 percent mark.
- For whites, there are no big jumps from bracket to bracket — the blocks are all more or less even. That means there’s more opportunity. For blacks, the blocks are very large; so once they’re born into an income bracket, they tend to get stuck there.
- Whites will almost always move up in income by the time they’re 40; blacks (even those born into some money) will almost always move down.
In a broader sense, we could summarize it this way:
- Blacks are much more likely to be born into poverty, and get stuck there.
- Even blacks born into the top 40 percent don’t have a much greater chance of making it to the top 20 than those who are born poor.
- Being born into money conveys a huge advantage for whites; for blacks, it’s almost meaningless.
Or, to distill it even further:
- The American Dream still lives…as long as you’re white.
Now, the Bill O’Reillys of the world are going to say “That’s a CULTURAL problem with blacks! It’s not our fault!” And he might be half right. At least for those of us too young to remember Jim Crow Laws or George Wallace, it may not be our fault. We didn’t exist to put blacks in the position that they are, and we haven’t yet gotten into high enough positions of power to change things from the top down.
But, this isn’t about blame, or lack thereof. We’re pretty well past that point now.
It’s about who gets the car lengths and big sponsors in the Great Drag Race of Life. We can worry about assigning blame later, if it even matters. What matters today is simply (and gracefully) admitting who starts the race eating whose tire smoke.