When politicians speak about the plight of African Americans in the United States, their focus is predominately on those who reside in urban areas. They often discuss the lack of resources for African Americans in metropolitan and suburban areas, focusing on issues such as lack of education or employment opportunities or the need for criminal justice reform due to overcriminalization and underpolicing. While these are salient issues that need to be addressed, this limited focus ignores the plight of many African Americans residing outside of densely populated urban metro areas. African Americans make up 12.3 percent of the United States population and comprise 14.3 percent of the population in Southern nonmetropolitan counties.1 However, when politicians talk about rural America, they seemingly only focus on these areas’ white residents, neglecting the fact that they are home to a significant number of African Americans.
Using data taken from the Opportunity Atlas2—a collaboration between the U.S. Census Bureau, Harvard University, and Brown University that provides data on economic mobility throughout the country—one can see that the South has the lowest level of economic mobility for all demographics.3 Compared with other groups, African Americans have particularly low prospects for upward mobility and, in certain cases, are more likely to experience downward mobility.4
A long and brutal history of racist policies has kept African Americans from experiencing economic mobility through both legal and extralegal means. While the post-Reconstruction era and Jim Crow policies led to harsh outcomes for African Americans, the response by Southern—and national—politicians to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s continued to promote policies that oppressed African Americans. This so-called Southern strategy has driven conservative politics and policy over the past 50 years, hurting African Americans to this day.5 Figure 1 shows a strong clustering of low mobility in the South and in certain parts of the industrial Midwest; it is not random that the areas with the lowest economic mobility are those with high populations of African Americans.
This history of both explicit and structural racism has led to policies that have maintained and exacerbated racial disparities in many outcomes. To combat these problems and close these gaps, policymakers should call for new strategies that appeal to African American communities previously excluded, villainized, or ignored; these solutions should address the injustice visited upon these communities and put forth an agenda centered around racial and economic justice. Addressing issues facing rural African Americans can provide benefits to other rural residents as well as residents throughout the country. While problems such as limited access to health care, unaffordable housing, and criminal injustice are most acute for African Americans in rural parts of the South, Americans throughout the country suffer from these issues as well.
This issue brief outlines the specific problems faced by rural African Americans and provides policy recommendations for this neglected population. It is crucial to address this issue, as structural racism has harmed all Americans by denying particular groups the means to get ahead in the economy. When all citizens are allowed to participate in the economy, the benefits spill over throughout the country.
Structural racism and barriers to prosperity
Structural racism has been and continues to be the primary impediment to upward mobility for African Americans throughout the country. This form of racism explains how race and racism permeate both public and private institutions to create unequal outcomes in all facets of life. Structural racism manifests in many ways, including employment discrimination,6 disparities in the criminal justice system,7 disparities in health outcomes,8 and disparities in the education system.9 These issues are particularly pronounced within rural parts of the South. For example, rural residents must travel further to receive health services,10 and mass incarceration has been increasing in rural counties—primarily due to pretrial detention.11 Moreover, a 2018 article from the Brookings Institution shows that historical policies such as redlining and exclusion from the GI Bill have disadvantaged African Americans; and the long-term impacts of these policies continue to reverberate in a variety of ways.12 To this day, explicit discrimination against African Americans through Jim Crow policies and residential segregation has implications for employment and wealth-building activities.13 For example, in the run-up to the Great Recession, African Americans were targeted for subprime mortgage loans and were therefore at a greater risk for foreclosure during the housing collapse.14
Yet there are additional factors that harm African Americans in the rural South relating to labor market outcomes and industry. For example, a recent CAP report showed how the U.S. Department of Agriculture was responsible for the severe decline in African American farmers since the early 20th century.15 Due in part to the well-documented structural racism within the federal agency, the share of farmers who are African American plummeted from 14 percent in 1910 to less than 2 percent in 2017.
It is well-understood that racial discrimination in the labor market exists and has persisted into the present day.16 African Americans are more susceptible to business cycle movements than other groups. During recessions, they tend to be the first fired, and during ensuing recoveries, they are the last to be hired.17 In addition, involvement with the criminal justice system further affects African Americans’ attachment to the labor force.18 In the South—and other regions as well—the criminalization of poverty has severely affected African Americans. In the criminal justice system, the fines and fees levied on indigent individuals amount to a modern-day debtors’ prison. As described by the nonprofit Southern Center for Human Rights, when an individual receives a misdemeanor and cannot pay the fine, they are subject to imprisonment along with multiple fees—including fees that go to the Sheriffs’ Retirement Fund and the Peace Officers’ Annuity and Benefit Fund, to name just a few.19 These predatory fees make it difficult for individuals to properly reintegrate into society.
Union representation has also had important implications for African American wealth.20 Compared with other racial or ethnic groups, African Americans have consistently had the greatest level of union participation. However, as shown in Table 1, the South has lower rates of union representation. In the pre-Civil Rights period, right after World War II, many of these states enacted right-to-work laws, which depress union membership.21 Unsurprisingly, as a result of this, there is lower union representation in these states.
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