The central divide in America’s racial politics is over whether the country has made any progress at all. Liberals and conservatives used to agree that the social position of black Americans has greatly improved since the civil-rights movement. But an ascendant left is challenging that consensus with a new narrative in which racism became “systemic,” Jim Crow segregation gave way to a “new Jim Crow” of disguised white supremacy, and the color-blind ideal is itself suspect.
Allegedly supporting that radical view are statistics showing stubborn gaps in black and white life outcomes, including on crime, education and wealth. But a recent examination of life-expectancy data from the National Bureau of Economic Research reminds us that on that crucial metric, progress has been significant.
“Between 1990 and 2018,” the paper reports, “the U.S. White-Black life expectancy gap decreased from 7.0 to 3.6 years.” A black person born in the U.S. in 1990 could be expected to live to about age 69, compared to 76 for a white person. In the intervening generation, black life expectancy rose about twice as fast as white life expectancy. A black person born in 2018 could be expected to live just over age 75, compared to just under 79 for a white person.
The drivers, the authors say, are primarily “greater reductions in Black relative to White death rates due to cancer, homicide, HIV, and causes originating in the fetal or infant period.” The most pronounced reductions in black mortality are among children and adults under age 65, rather than the elderly.
“Deaths of despair” (deaths from suicide, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related disease) increased among black and white Americans, especially in the last decade, but took a larger toll on white life expectancy. That accounted for 16.2% of the narrowing of the racial gap. The linear extension of life expectancies for both races stopped after 2012, meaning that it’s hard to see much effect from ObamaCare’s health insurance expansion in the data.
“If mortality had continued to evolve at the same rate after 2012 as it did from 1990 to 2012,” the paper finds, “the gap in life expectancy between Black and White persons would have closed by 2036.” That now appears unlikely, especially because of the last year of coronavirus, lockdowns and resurgent crime, which cut down life expectancy for whites in 2020 by 1.2 years and 2.9 years for blacks, according to Census data.
Coronavirus deaths among all races should decline in the coming years. But the impact of lockdowns (like lost cancer screenings) may be long-lasting. Reductions in homicide narrowed the racial mortality gap by 12.5% in the last generation, but murders surged in 2020. The political attack on policing has contributed to the homicide surge and does disproportionate harm to blacks.
The larger point from the data is that the U.S. became more racially egalitarian in at least this key measure of well-being before the coronavirus. Black lives got longer before Black Lives Matter existed.
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Appeared in the October 12, 2021, print edition.