WASHINGTON - I was reading through the National Urban League's latest report on the "State of Black America" when I was jerked alert by a startling statistic: More than 40 percent of the black respondents to an Urban League poll felt "very little" or "no improvement" had been made in economic and social mobility since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.
What? Little or no improvement? What, I wondered, about the quadrupling number of African-Americans in the middle-income brackets, according to census reports? What about the shrinking of black poverty rates from almost two-thirds to less than one-third? What about the dramatic growth in the number of black elected officials? Black college professors and presidents? Black corporate chief executive officers? Colin L. Powell?
But, alas, in matters of politics and public policy, perception is nine-tenths of reality, and for a very large portion of black America, success remains either elusive or precarious.
As an African-American who has marveled at how much racial progress America has made over the past four decades, although the nation still has a way to go, I find such widespread pessimism to be dismaying. It has long been my observation that too many Americans are divided between two unreasonable camps on this subject: those who believe the country has not made any racial progress over the past 40 years and those who believe we have made all of the progress we need to make.
In fact, the truth is somewhere in between. All Americans need to recognize the improvements that we have made so we will have the faith and strength and determination necessary to accomplish the improvements that still need to be made.
The spin on this year's Urban League report sounds particularly bleak because, for the first time, the organization has quantified the gap in income and opportunity between blacks and whites into an "equality index." It finds that the status of blacks in economics, housing, education, health, social justice and civic engagement is 73 percent of their white counterparts.
That statistic resonates with a terrible chapter of black American history, when the Constitution declared that slaves would be counted as only three-fifths of a "person" for purposes of reapportionment.
But while a gap definitely persists between blacks and whites, the gap has become smaller since the 1960s. We are going in the right direction. We need to keep going. The system works. Unfortunately, it is not working for all of us. The real question of the moment should be: How do we take what we have learned and make it work for others?
With that in mind, I wish the league had measured not only the gap between blacks and whites but also the gap between blacks and blacks - by income.
A closer look at census data in the 1990s revealed that the fastest-growing sector of black Americans were those making $50,000 or more per year. Unfortunately, the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank, found a tripling between 1980 and 1995 of the black "underclass," defined as those who were welfare dependent, high school dropouts, chronically unemployed and regularly in and out of jail. As black households in the highest and lowest income groups grew, so did the gap between haves and have-nots.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said something about how the true test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time without losing your mind. The challenge for blacks is to hold in our minds the reality of our progress, while not letting it go to our head so much that we forget those left behind.
We have seen, for example, the value of education and responsible adult guidance in helping young people gain the tools they need to escape poverty. We have vastly increased our presence in government jobs more than any other area, the Urban League report says. We need to use those positions, as well as our new positions in the private sector, to form a new leadership for a new black liberation movement.
This new movement needs to make demands not only of "the system" but also of ourselves to make the improvements in our schools, housing, job opportunities, youth motivation and family supports so that the black American outlook won't have to look so bleak.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.