An ugly portrait

By Michelle Chen Jan 29, 2009

Sometimes cold statistics can make disturbing truths more real. A new report, "A Portrait of Mississippi," underscores racial disparities that, while not surprising, have seldom been so intricately documented until now.’ The study is an offshoot of Measure of America and the American Human Development Project, which analyzes "human development" in US communities by drawing on the framework of the United Nations Human Development Report. Last year, the group published an evaluation of states based on various criteria related to education, prosperity and health. The latest report, commissioned by OxFam American and the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP, focuses on Mississippi, as a follow-up on the state’s extremely low ranking on the national index. The report outlines the dimensions of inequality by race, geography and gender. Framing "development" as a kind of progress over time, a disturbing snapshot emerges of an historical gulf between Black and White communities:

"Whites in Mississippi today have a human development level comparable to that of the average American circa 1997. African Americans in the state, on average, experience the level of access to choices and opportunities of the average American in 1974—a 23-year gap between the two groups.

"When geography and race are combined, the gap nearly triples. White Mississippians living in Hinds County have a human development level roughly comparable to that of top-ranked Connecticut. African-Americans living in Pike-Adams have human development level of the average American circa 1960. "While the range of earnings for whites in all county groups spans from $22,000 to $38,000, for African Americans, the earnings range is $13,000 to $25,000. In other words, whites who are worst off in the state in terms of income are still better off than the majority of African Americans…. "The median earnings of African American men, $20,368, are comparable to those of the typical American in 1970. African American women have median earnings of $ 14,915 – less than the earnings of the typical American in 1960…. "An African American baby boy born today in Mississippi can expect to have a lifespan shorter than that of the average American in 1960."

To confront these disparities, the researchers recommend policy measures targeting communities of color: boosting economic supports for working-class Mississipians; improving healthcare access to reduce infant mortality; and improving educational opportunities, particularly for Black male youth who are acutely impacted by incarceration and juvenile detention. Currently, according to the report, "the state is spending twice as much per prisoner as it is on education per schoolchild." The project doesn’t comprehensively rank states according to how equitably resources are distributed among demographic communities. That’s one measure of human progress that grim studies like this seem to demand.