All in all, for lower-income Americans, it’s a pretty bleak picture—particularly if those lower-income Americans also happen to be African-American. As I wrote last week, many of the dreams of the 1963 March on Washington remain unfulfilled, a problem compounded by the alarming fact that middle class incomes have actually declined over the past 14 years. America is not so much a land of opportunity as it is a place of impassable plateaus. Those who begin life on one side of the mountain rarely make it to the other. Whoever said “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” surely didn’t grow up poor.

But even poverty isn’t shared equally. Two centuries of racial repression doesn’t disappear in a couple of decades. Race remains demographically relevant for a reason: the numbers, more often than not, are black and white.

In 2010, 70 of the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, home to more than half the American population, were so segregated that half of blacks would need to change neighborhoods to be equally mixed with whites. The average black neighborhood is twice as poor the average white one. Three quarters of black public school students attend segregated, majority poor schools. And between 2008 and 2010, blacks were 60 percent more likely than other ethnic groups to live in areas with double digit unemployment.

Even after controlling for income, whites are two to three more likely to attend highly selective colleges than blacks—and racial disparities have actually widened in the last 30 years. But access is hardly the only problem. Blacks complete college at lower rates than whites: just two in five blacks graduate within six years, compared with three in five whites. In the process, blacks accumulate significantly greater loan debt and are at greater risk for default—and especially default without a degree. Just 18 percent of blacks are college graduates, compared with 30 percent of whites.

Once in the workforce, things scarcely improve. According to the Economic Policy Institute, seven of eight occupations in America are racially segregated—even controlling for education. Professions dominated by black men earn only 73 cents on the dollar as compared to professions where white men are overrepresented.

All told, the typical black household has just 58 percent the income of the typical white household. White households in the top five percent earn 53 times that of a black household in the bottom quintile. Even among poor households, blacks earn less than half of what whites earn.

Sounds pretty unfair. Didn’t we outlaw this sort of thing?

It’s true, discrimination today legally can’t be deliberate. But it doesn’t need to be.

As we’ve seen, relegating minorities to desperately poor neighborhoods doesn’t work wonders for life chances. One could hardly devise a policy more effective at propagating inequality.

These sort of invisible shackles abound. To take another example, consider how people find jobs. If you’ve ever found a job through a parent or a friend, chances are you’re probably white. Indeed, as Nancy DiTomaso has chronicled, informal networks are among whites’ strongest labor market advantages, with some seven in ten white job seekers finding employment through friends or insiders—a route often unavailable in poor neighborhoods.

Of course, one need not have invisible shackles when actual ones will do the trick. Perhaps the only thing America spreads more unevenly than income is incarceration. Black men are imprisoned at more than six times the rate of white men. If current policing practices continue, one in three black men will be imprisoned during their lifetimes, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. And blacks are more likely to be victims of crime, too.

Crisis often exposes society’s weak points, and the recent financial crisis was no exception. The Great Recession struck with striking racial asymmetry.

  • When the housing market crashed, blacks absorbed the impact. Two of every 25 black homeowners were foreclosed, nearly double the rate among whites.
  • When the public sector contracted, blacks were on the front line. One in five blacks are government employees, compared with just 14 percent of whites.
  • And when unemployment rose, blacks were the first to fall. During the recession, the black unemployment rate was twice that of whites, and their average unemployment spell was a third longer.

Then again, to be black in America is to accept recession with regularity. During the last half century, the black unemployment rate has averaged 11.6 percent—far above the 6.7 percent average for all races during the Great Recession, according to EPI. Just once in the past 50 years (1969) did the black unemployment rate dip below recessionary levels.

Such is the state of racism in the United States. Implicit, institutional, invidious. Its socioeconomic dimension makes it more dangerous; its self-perpetuating cycles make it more permanent.

So, it seems fair to ask: does anyone dream anymore?