Spring 2011
The American Family in Black & White:

A Post-Racial Strategy for Improving Skills to Promote Equality

James Joseph Heckman

James J. Heckman, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1985, is the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago. He directs the Economics Research Center in the Department of Economics and the Center for Social Program Evaluation at the Harris School for Public Policy. In 2000, he received the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. He is also a Senior Fellow of the American Bar Foundation and the author of the forthcoming Hard Evidence on Soft Skills: The GED and the Problem of Soft Skills in America (with John Eric Humphries and Nicholas Mader).

Disparities between blacks and whites are persistent features of American society.11 On many measures, blacks as a group perform worse than whites, and the trends are discouraging. These disparities, continuing reminders of America’s troubled history of racial discrimination, clash with American ideals about equality, opportunity, and social mobility. Discussing these disparities is painful because American public policy has been so wrong in the past. The institution of slavery, the all-too-slow dismantling of segregation in the South and discriminatory practices elsewhere, prevented ready acceptance of blacks into mainstream American society. When the civil rights movement finally goaded the United States into abolishing state-sanctioned discrimination, integration of African Americans into the economy accelerated. Black economic status surged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with especially rapid progress in the previously segregated South.2

The success of the civil rights movement in reversing state-sanctioned discrimination gave rise to the hope that active government intervention in the economy, schools, and the courts could produce full equality for blacks in the larger society. Some forty years later, despite the visible success of an elite group within the black population, the economic and social progress of a large segment of African Americans has lagged. If anything, official statistics overstate the progress of African American males.3.  .  .


  • 1The research presented in this essay was supported by the American Bar Foundation (nichd R01 HD065072, NICHD R01 HD054702), the Institute for New Economic Thinking, the J.B. & M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation, the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, the MacArthur Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and an anonymous foundation. The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of the funders. I thank Steve Durlauf, Miriam Gensowski, Lynne Pettler Heckman, Tim Kautz, Nick Mader, Seong Hyeok Moon, Rich Neimand, Bob Pollak, and Paul Tough for their very helpful comments on drafts of the paper. Molly Schnell gave devoted research assistance and helpful commentary. I thank Nick Mader and Seong Moon for their help in producing some of the supporting material for this paper, which is available as a Web appendix at http://jenni.uchicago.edu/understanding_b-w_gap.
  • 2See John J. Donohue and James J. Heckman, “Continuous Versus Episodic Change: The Impact of Civil Rights Policy on the Economic Status of Blacks,” Journal of Economic Literature 29 (4) (1991).
  • 3See Richard Butler and James J. Heckman, “The Impact of the Government on the Labor Market Status of Black Americans: A Critical Review,” in Equal Rights and Industrial Relations, ed. Leonard J. Hausman, Orley Ashenfelter, Bayard Rustin, Richard F. Schubert, and Donald Slaiman (Madison, Wis.: Industrial Relations Research Association, 1977); Amitabh Chandra, Is the Convergence of the Racial Wage Gap Illusory? (National Bureau of Economic Research, 2003); and James J. Heckman and Paul A. LaFontaine, “The American High School Graduation Rate: Trends and Levels,” Review of Economics and Statistics 92 (2) (2010).
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