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Inequality between white and Black Americans persists in almost every aspect of society and the economy. Such disadvantages have proven immune to decades of laws and policies meant to address them, leaving Black people with less education, less wealth, poorer health and shorter lifespans. Together, the disparities reflect what many have labeled systemic racism amid the mass protests that followed the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer in May.
There has been progress in recent decades. But wide gaps — rooted in the legacy of slavery, segregation and discrimination — have endured or widened in the years since the civil rights victories of the 1960s. Born from the enslavement of Africans in British colonies since the early 1600s, American inequality plays out over the course of a lifetime.
Disparities begin at birth, even before. Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.
Out of every 100,000 live births, 42 Black women die of pregnancy-related causes, more than three times the rate for white women.
Note: Data from 2007–2016
In every U.S. state, Black women are more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women, a gap that generally increases with the mother’s age. Black infants also die at about twice the rate of white infants. Out of every 1,000 live births in 2017, 11 infants born to Black mothers died before their first birthday, compared to five deaths of infants born to white mothers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sees the disparities as a complex problem. Maternal mortality decreases among women with higher education levels, but Black women with college degrees still have a mortality rate that is five times higher than college-educated white women. Disparities in access and quality of healthcare likely play a role, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Disparities extend to the basics of life. Black households are two and a half times more likely to experience food insecurity than white households.
USDA food insecurity survey
Out of every 100 Black households, 21 sometimes have difficulty providing enough food
Note: Data from 2018
One in every five Black households experienced food insecurity in 2018, defined as uncertainty in being able to acquire enough food for the household. About one in ten Black households included a member who ate less food than they needed because they didn’t have enough money.
A Brookings Institution survey in April showed that food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic hit a national rate of 23% — the highest on record — including nearly a third of Black households.
Racial disparities are solidified in school. Less than a third of Black students attain a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to almost half of white students.
Bachelor’s degree attainment
The 16 percentage point gap between Black and white students who have bachelor’s degrees has remained steady for two decades.
Source: U.S. Department of Education
Racial inequality persists in education — from preschool to college — setting up many Black Americans for a lifetime of social and economic disadvantages. A high-quality preschool can help close early skills gaps, but only 15% of Black children attend one, compared to 24% of white children, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, a nonprofit policy organization.
More than 65 years after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, Black children often still attend highly segregated and underfunded schools. Because of housing discrimination and school-district gerrymandering, more than half of U.S. students attend schools with populations that are more than 75% white or 75% non-white, according to EdBuild, an organization that has advocated for more equitable school funding. The predominantly non-white districts spent $2,000 less per student on average than the mostly white districts, largely because schools are financed by local property taxes. Nationwide, that amounts to a deficit of $23 billion.
Black undergraduate students owe about $7,000 more in student loans on average than their white peers after graduation.
Undergraduate student loan gap
More Black students need student loans for college than white students, and those taking them graduate with over $7,000 more in debt, on average.
Source: Brookings Institution
The U.S. job market now almost demands a college degree, and research shows it is a good, if expensive, investment. But debt can change the equation, and Black college students often need to borrow more to finance their degrees, research shows. They also default on student loans at twice the rate of white borrowers. A New York Federal Reserve report showed that 23% of people in Black-majority neighborhoods have student loan debt, compared to 17% of people in Hispanic-majority neighborhoods and 14% in white-majority areas.
Black students borrow and default more because they are more likely to come from low-income families, the research concluded. Their heavier debt loads make it harder to build wealth throughout adulthood.
Black adults are more than 1.5 times less likely to have health insurance than white adults.
Rates of uninsured people
The Affordable Care Act helped narrow the gap between Black and white people, but the disparity has grown slightly since 2016.
Health insurance, a solid indicator of healthcare access, has eluded Black adults more than white adults for a multitude of reasons. The gap in coverage between white and Black adults had been almost cut in half after the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act, from 9.9 percentage points to 5.5 in 2016. But progress has since stalled. The remaining gap may be a factor of lower incomes or the types of jobs Black people are more likely to hold. But the disparity in coverage means Black people are more likely to avoid care due to costs.
THE JUSTICE SYSTEM
On average, Black male offenders received federal sentences almost 20% longer than white male offenders for the same crime.
THE JUSTICE SYSTEM
Difference in prison terms for black and white offenders
A Sentencing Commission report examining the difference in federal court sentences found that, between 2007 and 2016, sentences for Black male offenders were an average of almost 20% longer than those for white male offenders accused of the same crime.
Source: United States Sentencing Commission
THE JUSTICE SYSTEM
Black Americans face a higher chance of imprisonment, according to the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan public policy organization. In 2017, Black adults made up 33% of the U.S. prison population despite accounting for only 12% of the nation’s adults. In contrast, white people made up 30% of the prison population but 64% of the country as a whole. Black people also face longer sentences for similar crimes, and have a greater chance of dying from an encounter from a police officer, compared with white people, according to U.S. government studies.
In 2016, 1 of every 13 Black people lost their right to vote due to a felony conviction, compared to 1 in every 56 non-Black voters.
In 2016, more than 7% of the voting age Black population in America was disenfranchised compared to 1.8% of the non-Black population.
Source: The Sentencing Project
Black political gains, from electing local officials to Congress members and a President, have been steady since the dismantling of discriminatory “Jim Crow” laws, which legalized racial segregation, and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
But in 2016, Black people made up a disproportionate share of the more than 6 million people estimated to have lost their right to vote because of a felony conviction. More than half of states restrict voting while in prison, or on parole and probation. And more than one in five states permanently disenfranchise at least some people with criminal convictions.
Black families have one-tenth of the median net worth that white families have.
Median net worth
Black Americans have one tenth of the net worth of white Americans. Nearly one in five Black households has zero or negative net worth, compared to nearly one in ten white households.
Source: The Federal Reserve
The striking gap between Black and white family wealth results from disparities across the U.S. economy. Black people are about twice as likely to be unemployed. The Black median household income is 57% that of white families, according to a 2017 Federal Reserve study.
The wealth gap is growing, and persists even for people with the same education level. The median net worth of families headed by a white person with a bachelor’s degree was $397,000 as of 2016; for households headed by a college-educated Black person, it was $68,000 — less than a white person without a college degree.
A Black family is about half as likely to own their home as a white family.
Quarterly home ownership
The large gap in Black and white home ownership has persisted for decades, but since the Great Recession in 2008 the gap has grown.
Note: Gray bars denote recessions
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
The American dream of homeownership isn’t a reality for many Black families, who are only marginally more likely to own a home now than in 1968, when the Fair Housing Act was passed. Generations of housing and mortgage discrimination have contributed to the divide, as have Black families’ lower incomes and larger debt loads.
Before the 2008 housing crisis, Black consumers were disproportionately targeted for predatory loans, making them more vulnerable to foreclosures, according to the Center for Responsible Lending, an advocacy organization. And Black people buying homes today often pay higher mortgage fees and face more setbacks from tighter underwriting standards, according to the center. Those who can buy homes often get fewer financial benefits because properties in predominantly Black neighborhoods appreciate more slowly than those in white areas, contributing to broader gaps in family wealth, according to University of Georgia researchers.
Black households nearing retirement have a median savings of $30,000, which amounts to one quarter of the amount held by white households.
Median retirement savings
Black households near retirement age (55-64) had just a fourth of the savings held by white families for retirement in 2010.
Source: National Institute of Retirement Security
After a lifetime of lower pay, many Black Americans are forced to live on less in retirement. With less savings, they are more likely to rely on Social Security benefits as their main source of retirement income — and those checks are often smaller than those of white peers after a lifetime of making smaller contributions.
Almost half of Black people receiving Social Security benefits receive at least 90% of their income from the program, according to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare. Only a quarter received retirement income from other assets, compared with more than 55% of white retirees.
Black men have a life expectancy of 72.2 years, more than four years less than white men at 76.6 years.
The life expectancy gap between Black and white people has narrowed over a century but remains at four years. Chronic diseases, such as heart conditions or cancer, strike Black people at higher rates than white people.
In the CDC’s earliest records, at the turn of the last century, white people lived more than 30% longer than Black people, on average. The gap has decreased, but stayed largely stable through the 1960s to the 1990s. Increases in Black life expectancy since then have been attributed to reductions in HIV/AIDS deaths and homicide. The disadvantages Black people encounter throughout life in areas such as education, health care and housing contribute to the shorter life span.
In the COVID-19 pandemic, Black people have suffered higher infection and death rates. The Brookings Institution notes that densely populated neighborhoods with lack of nearby health resources may account for the difference, along with the higher presence of Black people among “essential” workers kept on the job throughout the crisis.