The ratio of median black family income compared to median white family income has hardly changed since 1959. But black women earn somewhat more than white women of similar education and skills. Both statements are true. They indicate that black economic progress - or lack of it - is not easily explainable.
Reynolds Farley, a sociologist at the University of Michigan, has reviewed the situation in an article in Economic Outlook USA, published by his university's Survey Research Center. Despite civil rights laws and more access to education, he says, the American melting pot has not yet fully included blacks.
``The actual trends are mixed,'' Mr. Farley writes, ``with clear gains on some indicators but no improvement on others.''
Unemployment of adult black men, for instance, fell to a low of 3 percent during the late 1960s and reached a post-Depression high of 13 percent in the early '80s. Joblessness among black men has been approximately twice that of adult white men for 30 years.
More and more black men, moreover, are not looking for work. By the early '80s, 1 in 8 had dropped out of the labor force. Among whites, the ratio was 1 in 20.
Why this sad picture? One theory is that many black men lack the skills or personal habits to be employed. Others blame welfare for offering a financial alternative to work. Others say concentration of blacks in city ghettoes makes it difficult for them to find jobs in suburbs.
Farley sees no satisfactory explanation. Among other economic trends:
Traditionally, a higher proportion of black women than white women have held paid jobs. By the early 1980s, white women caught up.
There is unambiguous evidence that the occupational distribution of employed blacks has been upgraded and is gradually becoming similar to that of whites. As blacks moved from the farms into cities and their educational attainments rose, they obtained better jobs.
As the economy shifted from blue collar jobs to white collar and service jobs, both whites and blacks went up the occupational ladder. But blacks climbed faster throughout the '70s and into the '80s. The percent of white men with professional or managerial jobs climbed from 20 percent in 1950 to 32 percent in 1982; for black men, from 6 to 20 percent.
``Studies of occupational mobility also report a declining net effect of race, suggesting that the process is becoming more egalitarian,'' reports Farley. ``Nevertheless, large occupational differences remain.'' He figures several more decades will be required before those differences completely disappear.
The '60s and '70s were decades of improvements in the relative earnings of black men to white men. But there has been stagnation in the '80s.
In 1960, black men had hourly earnings 61 percent those of white men. In the next two decades, this increased to 74 percent. Because black men have more unemployment, they earn less on an annual basis. Here the improvement has been from 52 percent in 1960 to 66 percent in 1980.
Taking account of differences in education, residence, experience, and hours of work, black men earn about 85 percent as much as white men.
Black women have done better. In 1960 their hourly earnings were 61 percent those of white women. This increased to 98 percent by 1980. And in 1985, the hourly earnings of black females exceeded those of white females by 1 percent.
On an annual basis, black women, since they worked more hours on average, earned 7 percent more than white women.
The percent of blacks below the poverty line fell sharply in the '60s, reaching a minimum of 30 percent in the early '70s. No progress has been made since.
The reason is a sharp increase in the proportion of blacks living in families headed by women, either because of delay in first marriage, ``marital disruption,'' and childbearing prior to marriage.
Some 52 percent of black families with a women as head-of-household were below the poverty line in 1984, compared to 15 percent of black married-couple families. White families suffer from similar trends, but to a lesser extent.
``If all blacks and whites lived in husband-wife families,'' Farley says, ``blacks would still have high poverty rates, but they would be twice, rather than three times, those of whites.''
He concludes that current support for government programs to remove inequities in the economic status of blacks is lacking. ``Quite likely,'' he says, ``racial differences will persist and some, such as those relating to family income and poverty, will grow larger.''