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Racial inequality still lingers in Boston


James Jennings is quite familiar with census data about Boston’s black community, but even he was astonished at what his latest round of numbers-crunching revealed.

“The degree and extent of racial inequality in Boston — I found that very surprising,” said Jennings, a political science professor at Tufts University.

A community profile he has compiled documents that persistent inequalities in poverty, income, unemployment and the reliance on food stamps afflicts blacks in Boston, compared with white residents. A similar pattern of racial-ethnic gaps exists for Latinos and, in some cases, Asians.

The black-white inequalities in economic status are often blamed on so many black households headed by unmarried women, or on the lower levels of education of black adults. Both statistics are true, but neither tells the whole story, Jennings concludes in a report on the State of Black Boston released Tuesday jointly by the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, Boston NAACP and Trotter Institute at UMass Boston.

When Jennings compared black and white families with the same structure, and black and white adults with the same of amount of education, he found that gaps in poverty rates and earnings remain in most cases.

“If you compare black couples to white couples, you still see the racial inequality. If you compare black female-headed households with the white female-headed households, you still see the inequality,” Jennings said.

For adults, education produces the two exceptions to the pattern: Blacks and whites who have a high school diploma, or an associate degree from a community or career college, earn about the same amount.

Curiously, a bachelor or master’s degree does not lead to parity in income. “As schooling increases, the gap increases,” he added.

Highlights from the preliminary State of Black Boston report, discussed Tuesday during a forum at the United Way of Eastern Massachusetts:

— About 23 percent of black families live in poverty, more than three times the rate for white families. For Latino families, the figure is 31 percent, the highest of all racial-ethnic groups.

— About 6 percent of black married couples fall below the poverty line, twice the percentage of white couples. Only 29 percent of families headed by white women are poor, compared with 43 percent of black families with that structure, and 54 percent of Latino ones.

— On average, black high school graduates earn slightly more than whites with diplomas, while blacks with associate degrees slightly less than their white counterparts. In each case, the difference is about $2,000 a year.

— The wages of black college graduates average 69 percent of the earnings of white graduates. For those with a master’s degree, the figure is 72 percent. Both gaps amount to about $15,000 a year.

— Of all racial-ethnic groups in the city, blacks have the highest unemployment rate, an average of 13 percent from 2006 -2008, based on US Census surveys. Comparable figures were 10 percent for Latinos, 8 percent for Asians and 5 percent for whites.

— Nearly half of black children age 17 and under, 45 percent, live in households that receive food stamps.

Jennings said his findings suggest different directions for education reform. “I think we do have to question the intensity around high-stakes testing” using MCAS, he said, and focus instead on making schooling “more linked to workforce preparation and needs.”

He said he thinks Boston Public School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson is on the right track with her efforts to connect schools to neighborhood health and social services. But he said private foundations and government agencies should also work more with neighborhood nonprofits, particularly to ensure the near-majority of black children on food stamps are nourished well enough to pay attention and perform well in school.

Finally, Jennings recommends more attention to where many poor black children and families live. “We have not been doing enough in public housing and schools. Maybe we need a more aggressive posture,” he said.

He acknowledges that some racial progress has been made since the last comprehensive look at black Boston was published in 1997. He added: “That progress does not answer the challenge of the inequality and poverty in Boston.”

Last year, Jennings published assigned scores on a “distress index” to each of the city’s neighborhoods, based on poverty, income, foreclosures and crime. That study using census data found the most distressed areas are populated by blacks, Latinos and, in some cases, Asians.

Since 2008, the Urban League, Boston NAACP and Trotter Institute have been collaborating to produce the State of Black Boston report before the National Urban League meets in the city next July. The Jennings report is the first installment of an overall report to be released in conjunction with the conference.

Other joint forums have focused on education, health, wealth-building and media. The final report will cover those subjects as well as criminal justice, housing and economic development, culture and civic engagement.

Kenneth J. Cooper is editor of the State of Black Boston report.