Losing Ground: Colorado’s Minorities
By some of the most important measures of social progress, black and Latino residents of Colorado have lost ground compared with white residents in the decades since the civil rights movement.
Minority gains made during the 1960s and 1970s have eroded with time, an I-News Network analysis of six decades of demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau found. In other categories, the gaps between whites and minorities have steadily widened since 1960.
The analysis focused on family income, poverty rates, high school and college graduation and home ownership. Health data and justice records examined also revealed disparities.
Similar racial and ethnic inequities appear nationwide. But one glaring fact about Colorado is that it went from a state that was by most measures more equitable than the national average in the first decades covered by the analysis to one that is less so now.
According to most experts, racial and ethnic inequality will pose a significant future handicap for a state in which minorities are a rising population.
“I was actually shocked,” said Eric Nelson, vice president of the Aurora NAACP, after examining the data analysis. “You would think we as a nation would have overcome a lot of things since then. It’s like, ‘Wow! We’re spinning our wheels going in reverse.’ “
There are important caveats, of course, including the decades-long rise of professional classes among both blacks and Latinos and striking examples of individual wealth and achievement. Minorities have made gains in a number of categories, as well, but in most have not kept pace.
By the broad gauge of the Census measure, recent decades have not been kind to aspirations of equality by the state’s minority residents. Almost 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his generation-defining “I Have a Dream” speech, income and education gaps have remained stubbornly high:
In 1970, for example, black families earned 73 percent of white family incomes and Hispanic families earned 72 percent. By 2010, those numbers had fallen to about 60 percent and 50 percent, respectively.
Almost 60 percent of Latino households were owner-occupied in 1970; now it’s just beneath 50 percent. Most experts attribute an immigration influx with pulling down Latino numbers.
The gaps among adults with college degrees have steadily widened since 1960, with the percent of whites with college degrees three times higher than the Latino rate and double the black rate. Those disparities are the nation’s worst for both Latinos and blacks.
Among more positive trends, 86 percent of black adults had graduated from high school in 2010, up from 31 percent in 1960. Latinos have also improved high school graduation rates through the decades, but still lagged badly at 65 percent, compared with 95 percent for whites, in 2010.
For other minority groups in Colorado, their numbers were too small to statistically compare, particularly during the early decades of the analysis.
Gaps in minority populations identified
Poverty, income and education gaps in the state parallel other important disparities outlined in many studies that show blacks and Latinos lagging behind whites in one critical measure of health after another.
The U.S. Census Bureau only began tracking data about health insurance in recent years and does not collect other information about overall health. But data compiled by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment over the past 15 years shows that the state’s ethnic minorities do not fare as well as white residents when it comes to disease and death.
Blacks and Latinos, for example, experience significantly higher rates of infant mortality and deaths from diseases such as diabetes than whites in Colorado.
“The general statement that I make is, we’re sicker than most and dying sooner than we should,” said Grant Jones, founder and executive director of the Center for African American Health in Denver.
The implications of inequality for the future are enormous: The number of minority babies being born nationally recently eclipsed that of whites, and, in Colorado, 46 percent of children under one year of age in 2011 were minorities, the Census Bureau reported.
That holds economic consequences in the future for all Colorado residents.
Latinos are the largest minority group, comprising 21 percent of the population in 2011, compared with 4 percent for blacks and 70 percent for whites.
I-News explored the social phenomena behind the numbers with community activists and politicians, researchers from liberal and conservative think tanks, educators, church leaders and people in the street. The reasons given for the gaps were myriad and complex. They are rooted in history and intergenerational in nature.
Among those cited:
The civil rights era policies that provided a boost to minorities in the 1960s and ‘70s, such as affirmative action, have been diminished or dismantled.
“For all intents and purpose, affirmative action has been wiped out,” said former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb. “There is no longer a desire to assure that minorities are being placed in jobs.”
Affirmative action programs, first envisioned by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and strengthened and expanded by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, have been narrowed or eliminated by U.S. Supreme Court decisions and, in individual states, by legislative action or by voters.
Many thousands of Colorado’s good paying, blue collar manufacturing jobs — think of Pueblo’s CF&I Steel or Denver’s Gates Rubber Co. or Montbello’s Samsonite Corp. — have disappeared, hurting minority families disproportionately.
“CF&I Steel once had 13,000 employees,” said former State Sen. Abel Tapia of Pueblo. “That used to be a path towards middle class prosperity. Pueblo took a really, really big hit in the ‘80s when the steel company downsized. In a community of 100,000 when you are talking 13,000 jobs, that was a big hit.”
Support for K–12 education has diminished. The cost of attending college has skyrocketed.
“We seem to be leading the way in the country on how not to fund education,” said Jim Chavez, executive director of the Latin American Educational Foundation.
The percentage of single-parent families and the number of births to single mothers have soared among black households, exacerbating the gaps, and immigration and teenage births in the Latino population have also led to widening disparities, experts said.
“You have a majority of children, particularly in the African American community, growing up in single-parent households,” said Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who is black. “There’s nothing that impacts those issues — issues of economics, their education, their quality of life - more than the economic challenges faced by single mothers.”
Apart from the Census numbers, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2010, in Colorado, 45 percent of black infants, 35 percent of Hispanic infants and 18 percent of white infants were born to single mothers.
That corresponds to a dramatic surge in the past five decades of children raised in single-parent homes, but the rate is particularly striking among blacks — 50 percent of black households with children in Colorado were headed by a single parent in 2010, compared to 25 percent of white households. Among Latino households with young children, 35 percent were headed by a single parent, according to the I-News analysis.
In a stark way, that boils down to ongoing economic disparity and impacts general prosperity, said Alan Berube, senior fellow and research director for Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.
“In part, it’s about how many adults you have and the income generating power these different households have,” he said. From an economic standpoint, one plus one equals two,” said Christelyn D. Karazin, an Internet activist striving to reduce the birthrate to single mothers. “Even if two people are working at McDonald’s, that’s two McDonald’s salaries right there.”
Census data shows that single motherhood is a greater indicator of poverty than race. Children living in a female-headed household in Colorado are four times more likely to grow up in poverty, the I-News analysis showed, than children in married-couple households.
“If you wanted to announce a systemic assault on the African American community, that’s how you would do it,” said Barry Fagin, a senior fellow with the Independence Institute, of the rate of births to single mothers.
In addition, the incarceration of a highly disproportionate number of minority men is a significant factor in numerous problems, including the single-parent family, said Denver Mayor Hancock, among others.
“There is one area where I think that many members of the African American community would agree that the drug war is basically a war on black men,” said Fagin.
“Unequal” funding for education
Regardless of which way the causal arrow runs, poverty and education are intertwined across the range of societal distress. Several experts said the state’s pullback in funding education over the past two decades has narrowed the path for escaping poverty.
Between 1992 and 2010, according to Census data, Colorado plunged from 24th to 40th on overall state spending per student for K–12 education. When compared to per capita personal income, Colorado ranked 45th among the states on K–12 spending.
Public school funding, very much dependent upon property taxes, is “inherently unequal” from district to district, said Corrine Fowler of the Colorado Progressive Coalition. And even within the same district, schools in affluent neighborhoods have the ability to fundraise in ways that schools in poor neighborhoods do not.
“Right now, today, I can almost predict where you’re going to be, based on your mother’s educational level and your family income,” said Nate Easley, who recently resigned as a member of the Denver school board, in an interview with Colorado Public Radio. “And until we correct that, our democracy is in jeopardy.”
Said Fowler, “Education should be the great equalizer. It should not be that just because your parents have more money or you come from a more affluent background that you should then get better educational opportunities. That is completely unjust.”
A separate report last year by the State Higher Education Executive Association found only New Hampshire and Vermont spent less per full-time college student than Colorado’s $3,316.
“Almost every one of those (disparity) trends, the underlying cause or factor is education,” said Chavez of the Latin American Educational Foundation. “We’ve seen the financial resources the state spent to help families with students go down dramatically the last 10 years.”
Said former Denver City Councilman Sal Carpio, who also served as head of the city’s housing authority, “The biggest single factor is all the effects of poverty. It’s like a funnel: a few trickle out. The funnel has gotten bigger. It still trickles, but there’s just more people in there that can’t get out.”
Politics and history
The widening gaps in Colorado are related to national political swings through the decades, both liberals and conservatives agree, but they disagree substantially on just how that has worked.
The civil rights era begat President Johnson’s war on poverty, a host of society-altering civil rights laws, financial support to the poor and many other programs aimed at leveling the playing field.
Some said the opposite happened.
“What we’ve done in America is design a system that rewards people for not working and locks them into poverty,” said former Republican Colorado U.S. Senator Hank Brown. “It’s a tragedy of the first order because the vast majority of people who are in poverty don’t want to be on welfare. They want jobs.”
Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the historical narrative is complex, but has much to do with the nation’s changing political will and policies.
“Almost all of the efforts in the sense of positive impetus were abandoned by or shortly before the Reagan era,” he said. “We had a narrowing of the income gap for a long time in part because we taxed higher income people pretty heavily and we had an increasingly generous set of social policies for disadvantaged people. We did just the exact opposite in the Reagan tax cuts and the Bush tax cuts. And there were simultaneous cuts in programs and services and dramatic reversals on civil rights policies.
“It just isn’t any kind of big surprise,” Orfield said. “It is quite clear there was an intentionality both about the narrowing of the gap and the growing of the gap.”
The widening gaps, in most appraisals, do not bode well for Colorado’s future.
The Brookings Institution’s Berube noted that more and more of Colorado’s under-18, school-aged population is brown and black, growing up in households that are economically disadvantaged, “which all the research shows places a negative strain on their educational potential.”
Racial inequality poses a threat to the future economic viability of the state, Berube said, if in 20 years disadvantaged minorities are the majority of the workforce.
“You still have on balance an aging white population and a young minority population. There are only so many white people you can pull from the rest of the country to help adjust for that imbalance and the challenge it is bringing,” he said.
For others interviewed by I-News, the inequities are a moral as well as an economic issue. If left unchallenged in the coming decades, they threaten Colorado’s future.