Demographic profile of African Americans, 1970-2000, The

demographic profile of African Americans, 1970-2000, The

Jones, Nicholas A


To commemorate the 30th anniversary of THE BLACK COLLEGIAN Magazine, we present a profile of the United States’ African American population over the last 30 years. This article extends a 1996 report for THE BLACK COLLEGIAN by Tania Mann, entitled “Profile of African Americans, 1970-1995.” The present article provides an overview of the significant trends and markers of the African American population over the last three decades of the 20th Century. This work draws heavily from recent research by the authors on race relations in American society and the position of African Americans in a diversifying nation, particularly the book published by the National Policy Association, New Directions: African Americans in a Diversifying Nation.


For many of today’s college students, the late 1960s and early 1970s may only be a period of time studied in history books, or revisited in television and movies. But the groundbreaking changes that took place during that- significant period of social and political change continue to have a rippling effect on the America we know today. We must also recognize how far America has to go if we hope to realize not only equal opportunities, but also equal outcomes, for all Americans. It remains to be seen whether the progress of the last 30 years is too little, given the anticipated potential of this era.

This demographic profile paints a picture of the African-American population in the United States from 1970 to 2000. In the first section, we present the basic demographic characteristics and changes in the African-American population over the last 30 years. Next, we examine the educational distribution of the Black population, and changes that have taken place in high school completion, college enrollment, and educational attainment. After that, we highlight changes in employment patterns, including employment rates and occupational distribution, and differences in pay. This leads to the last section on income differences by family type and education. We conclude with a discussion of possible futures for African Americans in our diversifying nation of the 21st Century.


Throughout much of our nation’s history, African Americans have been by far the largest non-white racial or ethnic group in the United States. Unfortunately, African Americans have also suffered the most persistent forms of individual and institutionalized racial discrimination. In recent years, because of increases in immigration and slowing birth rates for the Black population, other groups have risen in size comparable to African Americans. America can no longer be viewed as simply a dichotomous, Black and white society. Instead, we find ourselves living in a multicolored racial and ethnic mosaic, representing people from every conceivable background and heritage in the world. And what unique challenges will African Americans face in this increasingly complex America? To guide us, we utilize U.S. Census Bureau data to explore the demographic characteristics and changes in the African American population over the last 30 years.

In 1970, the Black population numbered 22.6 million, representing about 11 percent of the total U.S. population. Other non-white racial groups were also much smaller in size (see Figure 1). In 2000, African Americans numbered 35.5 million, or roughly 13 percent of the nation. This reflects a 57 percent increase over the last 30 years. While we have increased in number, the majority of the AfricanAmerican population continues to live in the South (54 percent). About 19 percent of African Americans live in the Northeast, as well as the Midwest (19 percent). Only 8 percent live in the West. These regional proportions have stayed virtually the same over the last three decades.

Many African Americans continue to live in the same states as well. The five states with the largest African-American populations in 2000 were New York (3.2 million), California (1.5 million), Texas (2.5 million), Florida (2.3 million) and Georgia (2.2 million). These states are similar to the largest states in 1970, with the exception of Illinois being replaced by Florida in the top five. Most African Americans (53 percent) also continue to live inside the central cities of metropolitan areas. But this is down from 1970, when the Black population base in central cities was 60 percent. In 2000, 35 percent of African Americans lived in the suburbs (outside central city in metropolitan areas), compared to only 19 percent in 1970. This shift in the Black population from central cities to suburbs is due to the corresponding shift of the manufacturing industry and job base from older urban centers.

The African-American population continues to be younger than the white population. In 1970, 42 percent of Blacks were under age 18, compared to 33 percent of Whites. Today that figure is 32 percent versus 24 percent. The median age (30 years) of the African-American population in 2000 was 5 years younger than the U.S. population as a whole. But this gap is smaller than it was in 1970, when the median age of Blacks (22 years) was about 7 years younger. African Americans are living longer than before, but still only 8 percent of the African-American population is over the age of 65, compared to 7 percent in 1970. In comparison, 14 percent of non-Hispanic whites were older than 65 in 2000, and 10 percent in 1970.

The number of African-American families is increasing. There were 8.7 million African- American families in 2000, compared to 4.9 million in 1970. About half (48 percent) of all African-American families today are married-couple families, a decline from 68 percent in 1970. Most other African-American families in 2000 (44 percent) were maintained by women.

The marital status of African Americans has also changed over time. In 1970, of Black males, age 15 and over, 57 percent had never been married, 36 percent were currently married, 4 percent were widowed and 3 percent were divorced. For Black females, these figures were respectively, 54 percent, 28 percent, 14 and 4 percent. Among AfricanAmerican men age 15 and over in 2000, 45 percent had never been married, 39 percent were currently married, 3 percent were widowed and 10 percent were divorced. Among African-American women, the corresponding rates were 42 percent, 31 percent, 10 percent and 12 percent.


Significant increases in high school completion rates, levels of college enrollment, and increasing educational attainment characterize much of the last 30 years. In the 1970s, significant changes were made in many of the school systems throughout the United States. Racial segregation came to an official end and the integration of public schools began to take shape. In 1970, only 34 percent of Blacks over 25 had completed high school. Substantial efforts to improve the education of all students took place throughout the 1980s and 1990s, culminating in the narrowing of the large gap between white and Black high school graduation rates. In 2000, the high school graduation levels doubled to a record high, nearly 80 percent.

However, despite the improving rates for high school completion, we face a sobering reality that a college diploma is perhaps the equivalent requirement for success that a high school diploma was 30 years ago. And in higher education, we still find tremendous racial disparities in levels of educational performance, educational attainment, college enrollment, and college graduation rates between Blacks and whites. By looking at these statistics, we find that the picture of educational differences is quite similar for higher education today, as it was for primary education in the past.

In 1970, only 16 percent of young Black Americans were attending college. That figure rose to 28 percent in 1990. And today many more young African Americans are attending college, though these figures still lag behind whites. Compared to 1970 (5 percent), three times as many African Americans, age 25 and over, had earned at least a bachelor’s degree in 2000. However, this record proportion of 17 percent is still lower than that of comparable whites, 28 percent.


In the post-Civil Rights Movement era, the passage of affirmative action mandates and equal employment opportunity laws helped open the door for more employment opportunities for racial minorities. Informal discrimination has not disappeared, however. Essentially, while substantial changes have taken place in access to employment, outcomes have not yet reached parity.

Over the past 30 years, there has been a Black/white gap in the labor force status for the civilian population age 16 and over. There have also been substantial increases in labor force participation rates for Blacks during that time. In 2000, Blacks and whites had similar proportions in the civilian labor force, 66 and 67 percent, respectively. However, looking at these figures by gender provides a different perspective. While African-American women (64 percent) have higher rates of labor force participation than white women (61 percent), AfricanAmerican men (68 percent) are behind white men (74 percent).

In the 1970s, joblessness was very prevalent among Blacks. The unemployment rate for Blacks was about 10 percent, compared to 5 percent for whites. But while economic expansion in subsequent decades led to upturns in the status of Americans overall, economic differences between African Americans and whites persisted. In recent years, Black Americans have been unemployed at more than twice the rate of white Americans.

The types of jobs (white collar, blue collar) that Blacks and Whites hold are not as different today as they were 30 vears aP-o. In 1970 whites were twice as likely as Blacks to work in white-collar occupations. Most Black women worked in the service sector, and more than half of Black men were employed in bluecollar jobs in 1970. Substantial gains were made throughout the next three decades, but today the occupational distribution for African Americans and whites is still somewhat different. In 2000, white men and African-American men were em loved in managerial and t)rofessional (white-collar) occupations at 32 percent and 18 percent, respectively. For women, the percentages were 35 percent for white women and 25 percent for African-American women.

The last 30 years have also witnessed significant strides toward equal pay for whites and African Americans though tremendous differences in pay still persist. African Americans still do not receive equal income compared to whites. On average, Black families earned about $61 for every $100 earned by white families in 1970, but the ratio has improved slightly over the decades. Despite all these changes and the narrowing gaps in employment, there is little evidence of employment parity between whites and African Americans over the last 30 years.


In this final section, we examine income differences for African Americans and non-Hispanic whites. In 1970, the median income for Black households was about $22,000, while for white households it was $37,000. In 1999, AfricanAmerican median household income was $27,900, the highest ever recorded, but still far less than for non-Hispanic white households $44,400, and below all other race groups as well.

When we compare income levels by family type, the differences between whites and African Americans are astounding. Black-to-white median income levels are much better for married couple families, but significantly worse in single-parent families, which make up a greater proportion of African-American than white families. Poverty is still a pressing problem in the AfricanAmerican community. Even in 1999, when the poverty rate for African Americans was the lowest ever, at 24 percent, this was still about three times greater than the poverty rate for non-Hispanic whites (8 percent).

Even when we examine income levels by education, we still find persistent differences between African Americans and whites. In 1970, college educated Blacks made about two-thirds of what college educated whites earned. In 2000, we still find differential earnings for college eduGated African Americans and whites. The median income in 2000 for whites with a bachelor’s degree or more was $41,700. For African Americans with a bachelor’s degree or more, the median income was $36,600. Overall, important concerns regarding affluence and poverty status differences for African Americans and whites remain. These trends reinforce that there has been little improvement in the relative economic status of African Americans since the 1970s.

How Far Have We Come?

Looking back over the past 30 years, we can see that there have been significant shifts in some areas of the social and economic status for African Americans. But in other areas, the position of African Americans has been stagnant, and in some cases, worsening. Recent upsurges in America’s economy have benefited, but not completely addressed the implementation of full employment policies for all Americans. Overall, we are beginning to see two separate realities in Black America, those who have directly benefited from the opportunities created by the Civil Rights Movement, and those whose position has slipped further and further behind. Because of this, it is difficult to say whether traditional racial gaps are beginning to close.

The disadvantaged position that African Americans face is due to a confluence of factors. The legacy of slavery, the caste-like manifestations of de jure and de facto segregation, and abiding discrimination and racism, have all contributed to the historical accumulation of disparity in the African American population. In combination, these things leave tremendous obstacles for African Americans in this society, and we find African Americans consistently at the bottom of America’s racial hierarchy. So how can we ensure that more progress will be made in the future, especially in our changing and challenging diversified nation?

Future Directions

We must develop policies and strategies that benefit the challenging and complex relationships between African Americans and all members of American society. In effect, we must develop a truly cooperative approach. Imagine a society in which all racial minority groups come together with a unified voice to further the common good of all in social, economic, and political arenas. Such a reality would provide new means for embracing our diverse ethnicities as social categories, instead of distinct boundaries for which we should fight to gain sep,rate power and resources. But how exactly will we achieve this dream? Recent research calls for a “multiracial civil society” in which pluralistic coexistence is the hallmark. Embracing and cherishing racial and ethnic difference will enable us to work together to further society’s common good. The most important ideal of this future of racial harmony depends on the extent to which all races and ethnicities are included in this society. Essentially, the equality of opportunity will truly be realized when we see a corresponding equality in outcomes.

Nicholas A. Jones is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan and an analyst in the Racial Statistics Branch of the U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, D.C.

Dr. James S. Jackson is the director of the Research Centerfor Group Dynamics, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan.

Copyright Black Collegian Apr 2001

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