One of the most common refrains from Blackfolk upwards of 50 years old, and even some of their children, is that life was better for us before integration. Still, others say such thinking over-glorifies the past while ignoring the gains we’ve enjoyed by no longer being restricted by laws based on a racist color line.
But if you go to any barbershop, attend any family reunion or find yourself in a conversation where two or more Blackfolk are gathered, at some point at least one person will say, and 90% of the folk gathered will agree, “Life was better for us before integration.” And then they’ll break down all the reasons.
But what do the numbers say about which time period has been better for Blacks–Before Integration or After Integration? And for reference, we’re defining “Before Integration” as the period of 1865 – 1965 and “After Integration” as 1966 – Present. Here are some statistics to contemplate.
[FYI: The years of enslavement are not being counted in the “Before Integration” category because the overwhelming majority of Black people in this land weren’t free, making it an unfair comparison. Plus, when Blackfolk say life was better before integration, they for damn sure weren’t referencing our nearly 300 years of bondage, forced labor, torture, etc.]
Award-winning journalist and Howard University professor Nikole Hannah-Jones made the point during her August 24, 2022 lecture in Houston, that America has only been a “Democracy” since the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Hannah-Jones argued America was an “ethnocracy,” a democracy only for one specific race, prior to 1965.
We would do well to remember that though the country is promoted as being the world’s oldest democracy, when founded it was a representative Republic that only gave wealthy white male property owners the right to vote. Women could not vote. Neither enslaved nor free Africans/Blacks could vote. Poor whites could not vote. In other words, only a small, wealthy minority had political power. And they wielded that power for their exclusive benefit.
And political decisions made during enslavement had lingering effects, like the 3/5 Compromise of 1787. Enslaved Black bodies were used as political pawns in the political power struggle between wealthy white males in the north versus wealthy white males in the south. That compromise gave southern whites a level of political power far greater than their numbers, thanks to those millions of Black bodies being counted as 3/5s of a person.
That means the one million enslaved humans in 1800 equaled 600,000 bodies that counted towards southern white political power. When that number of enslaved humans doubled around 1824, so too did the number of bodies that counted towards southern white political power (1.2 million).
The result: so many of the nation’s laws reflected the southern white sensibilities regarding the absolute subjugation of Black people. And those racist laws were felt long after “Emancipation.” In fact, Blacks first gained the right to vote in America in 1865. Yet, states fought back with laws pushed by the political power of southern whites and white domestic terrorism engaged in by those same whites to keep Blacks from exercising their rights.
And true, during that period of Reconstruction, roughly from 1871 – 1877, we voted like crazy, and had Black representatives at all levels. But after the Compromise of 1877 put an end to that, it took another federal law, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for Blacks to once again be able to cast votes for the representative of our choice.
Up until 1965, and in some cases a few years beyond, Blacks had to pay a poll tax and/or take a literacy test just to vote. We had to contend with the “Grandfather Clause” that said the only people who could vote were those whose grandfathers had the right to vote, which was just another way of saying to Blacks in the 1960s, 50s and 40s, “Y’all can’t vote.” There were countless other roadblocks to voting set before us—having to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar, reciting the U.S. Constitution word-for-word, and many other ploys that were never asked of white voters and were exclusively created to suppress and deny Black votes.
So, Black political power before 1965 compared to after that year, most would argue, is night and day, with “After Integration” winning this topic.
Not only have Blacks been able to exercise the right to vote, we gained access to every local, state and federal political position imaginable, including vice president and president of the United States.
However, there are still some, like local business leader and icon Georgia Provost, who take a different stance.
“Back during segregation, we had no Black elected officials and we fared better,” said Provost. “Now for the last 50 years, we’ve got all these Black elected officials and our communities look like a Third World country. They don’t come and communicate with us. The only time you see them is when they come and want you to vote.”
Also, political impact cannot be measured by the number of Black faces in political offices alone. Representative politics is about those elected to represent us successfully bringing resources to our communities to deal with issues we deem most important.
So, of course the amount of dollars politicians have been able to direct to Black communities after integration far surpasses any funds that came our way prior to 1965.
However, we must ask, have those funds changed the quality of life for Blacks in terms of wealth, life expectancy, protection from white domestic terrorism, healthcare access and education?
Economist Dr. Claud Anderson, author of PowerNomics, argues that Blacks during both pre- and post-integration times have no political power because we lack the economic power to have any real say in the political happenings in the US. For Anderson, without political power, integration for Blacks is a losing strategy.
On the subject of integration, he said: “Integration itself is counter manning any possibility of your ever acquiring power and wealth. You cannot empower yourself at the same time you integrate. Integration means disintegration. It means reducing yourself to a microspect because any society where the majority will win and rule and the minority will lose and suffer, why would anybody want to integrate? Integration is making Black folks a guest … it means I will make you a guest in something that is owned and controlled by other people… Black folks can never acquire wealth and power as long as they’re integrated.”
Additionally, there is a compelling case for the validity of the position argued by the late Reverend Albert B. Cleage Jr., “Father of Black Liberation Theology” and founder of the Shrines of the Black Madonna.
“Power resides neither in money nor positions or titles, but rather, power lies in institutions,” said Cleage.
Cleage argued in the 1960s until his passing in 2000 that the only institution Black people owned and controlled was the Black Church. And from that central institution, Blacks could, if they had a mind to, give birth to all other necessary survival institutions, including political power institutions. Short of doing that, from Cleage’s perspective, Blackfolk were foolishly putting all our faith in the goodwill of institutions owned and controlled by others to look out for our best interests.
By Cleage’s definition, not much has changed from pre-integration to the present. And without institutional power (political and otherwise), we have not been able to block the purposeful proliferation of drugs into Black communities, an effort documented as part of a US government effort. Neither has post-integration Black political presence been able to stop the over-incarceration of Black people, the theft of millions of acres of land from Black farmers, the purposeful under-development of Black children through an under-funded public education system, the healthcare inequities that still exist, etc. Issues political power are suppose to address if you have political power and not merely symbolic representation.
Moreover, if ones working definition of political power goes beyond simply voting power and elected positions, and deals with the level of control a people have over their own community, it could be argued that we had more “power” and control when forced to live in segregated neighborhoods. That control showed itself in the building of thriving communities like Rosewood in Florida and Black Wall Street (Little Africa) in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, along with thriving pre-integration business districts like Houston’s Dowling Avenue (now Emancipation Blvd.).
Not only that, voter suppression today, and for the past few years, has been on steroids, with Republicans finding new and creative ways to suppress Black, Latinx and college-aged votes specifically, while claiming to be colorblind about their insidious business.
Check out these numbers:
In 1962 (before integration), the average wealth of white households was seven times that of Black households (source: www.economist.com, Apr 6, 2019). In 2016 (after integration), that wealth gap widened, with the net worth of a typical white family ($171K) being nearly 10 times greater than that of a Black family ($17.1K) (source: www.brookings.edu, Feb 27, 2020).
Another study reported by the New York Times (Sept 18, 2017) showed that for every $100 in wealth a white family has, Black families hold just $5.04, not even enough to buy a typical fast food meal.
Put another way, and from a different study, the average white family is economically worth an astounding $600K more than the average Black family (Urban Wire, Feb 9, 2016). According to one study, without the family car Black wealth would barely exist (www.peoplespolicyproject.org, Sep 30, 2017).
When talking about Americans with the most wealth, Black households constitute less than 2% of those in the top 1% of the nation’s wealth distribution, while whites make up 96% of the nation’s big-ballers and shot-callers. At the other end of America’s economic spectrum, white households living near the poverty line typically have about $18K in wealth, while Black households in similar economic straits generally have a median wealth near $0. Yes, you read that right.
Another way of looking at the growth in our wealth realities before and after integration are these very telling and very disheartening numbers. In 1865, the year Blacks were emancipated from enslavement, as a people we controlled 0.5% of the nation’s wealth. In 1990, Blacks possessed just 1.0% of the nation’s wealth. So, from enslavement to the year the movies House Party and 48 Hours were released, we gained a mere 0.5%.
This means that both before and after integration, the impact of enslavement (246 years of stolen labor) that made the US the wealthiest country in the world, and that supplied Europe with its wealth, has been and is still being felt.
According to Shawn D. Rochester, author of The Black Tax: The Cost of Being Black in America, the value of Black stolen labor was valued somewhere between $24 and $97 trillion.
But not only is the legacy of enslavement still impacting past and current Black wealth realities, so too are the legacies of 1) white affirmative action (ex: Homestead Act of 1862 that saw the US government distribute 246 million acres of land to whites, valued at over $1.6 trillion… or $1 million per white family); 2) convict leasing system; 3) post-reconstruction domestic terrorism at Black Wall Street in Tulsa, OK, Seneca Village NYC, Rosewood, Florida, Elaine, Arkansas, Wilmington, NC and more; redlining (federal government-led housing discrimination); the unequal distribution of GI Bill benefits; the stealing of 12 million-plus acres of land from Black farmers; and modern devaluation of Black homes by an average of $48K per home or $156 billion; etc.
With these numbers (above) and many more not shared, it is difficult to argue that Blacks are better today economically than we were before integration. That barbershop argument that we had Black businesses that we owned and supported is a very legitimate argument even with the record number of Black entrepreneurs and record number of Black millionaires we have today.
But in the end, the way you score this, as either better before integration or after, depends on those economic and wealth factors most important to you personally. For those who look at raw numbers, we’re doing better after integration. However, for others who place more value on collective community support of Black businesses, we did better before integration.
[WINNER: BEFORE INTEGRATION]
Population health in the US has improved dramatically over the past century for all Americans. At the beginning of 1900, a person born in the United States was expected to live 47.3 years, compared with 78.6 years in 2017. In 1900, whites had a life expectancy of 47.6 years, while Blacks were expected to live only 33 years—14.6 fewer years than whites.
In 2017, the latest data available at the time of the report, “The Evolution of the Racial Gap in U.S. Life Expectancy” by Siddhartha Sanghi and Amy Smaldone (Jan. 27, 2022), Blacks in America were expected to live 75.3 years, just 3.5 fewer years than their white counterparts. The authors of the report attribute this closing of the life expectancy gap to “improved access to the health care system and higher education as well as increased income” for Blacks.
The report does acknowledge that “there still exists large systemic racial differences in economic opportunity and overall health and well-being.” And quantifying “quality of life,” though possible, is a much more subjective topic. But judging simply by the numbers, the comparison of life expectancy shows a clear winner.
[WINNER: AFTER INTEGRATION]
WHITE DOMESTIC TERRORISM
From the lynch mobs, bombings and racial terror events mislabeled “race riots” of the pre-integration days to the continued racial terror of police brutality and killings of Black men, women and children; the over-incarceration of Black people; the unequal sentencing; etc. how can there be a winner here?
Again, we come to another topic that is extremely subjective even though numbers suggest obvious progress. Segregation blocked Blacks from receiving medical care in “white” hospitals. However, in cities across the country Black doctors and healthcare workers created their own hospitals, clinics and house call systems.
But in Blackworld, access to white doctors did not in the past and does not presently equate to better healthcare. The famous Tuskegee Experiment is just one of many documented horror stories of violently oppressive abuse heaped upon Blacks by the US medical establishment.
The number of Blacks who have access to all healthcare institutions is an easy win for post-integration, if you define access in theoretical terms that point to the fact that there are no laws that block Blacks from going to whatever hospital they want, or signs that say “Whites Only.” However, as a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (2009) states, “a person’s zip code is more important than their genetic code in predicting how many years they will live.” And the zip codes with the least access to healthcare are predominantly Black, Brown and/or economically disadvantaged.
Additionally, the obscene mortality rates of Black women giving birth and Black women diagnosed with cancer compared to their white counterparts, reveals a level of “medical apartheid” that would be shameful to Third World nations.
The gruesome fact that Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related issue than white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has become well-known in our community. But what many don’t know is that maternal mortality not only speaks to the actual act of childbirth, but extends to the entire year afterwards.
CDC.gov states, “Each year in the United States, about 700 people die during pregnancy or in the year after. Another 50,000 women each year experience severe pregnancy complications that can cause serious consequences for a woman’s health.” And because of variations in quality healthcare, underlying chronic conditions, structural racism and implicit bias, Black women die or suffer pregnancy complications way more than their white counterparts.
On the cancer front, in 2022 Black women are 40% more likely to die from a breast cancer diagnosis in comparison to their white counterparts.
Moreover, compared to white patients, Blacks (males and females) are two to three times as likely to die of preventable heart disease and stroke, and have higher rates of cancer, asthma, influenza, pneumonia, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and homicide.
A 2018 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that Black men agreed to and received more extensive, invasive and preventative services when seen by Black doctors. The study suggests Black men are more trusting of doctors who look like them. The study also suggests Black doctors provide their patients with more options and a more thorough diagnosis, in part because their Black male patients were more open and forthcoming about their medical issues.
[WINNER: AFTER INTEGRATION]
A recent study done by the United States Census Bureau found that 27.8% of Black people 25 years and older earned a Bachelor’s degree or better in 2020. That is a huge percentage increase from the 1940 reality of only 1% of Black people with four years of college completed.
Those who believe life was better for Blacks in pre-integration years point to the care and dedication Black teachers and school administrators had for their all-Black student classrooms.
After integration, an unintended consequence that few address are the droves of Black teachers and principals—the same individuals who were celebrated for their commitment to teaching Black children—who lost their jobs.
The book Jim Crow’s Pink Slip: The Untold Story of Black Principal and Teacher Leadership speaks to this reality. Also, Jonathan Kozol’s classic book Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools and many books that followed point to the grossly unequal distribution of educational resources in the post-integration world that mirror the inequalities prior to integration.
And in education, as much as, if not more so than anywhere else, can be seen the re-segregation of America.
An article by Emma Garcia for the Economic Policy Institute (Feb. 12, 2020) states: “Well over six decades after the Supreme Court declared ‘separate but equal’ schools to be unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, schools remain heavily segregated by race and ethnicity.”
The article says the consequences of this lack of progress in integrating schools for Black children include depressing education outcomes for Black students; widening performance gaps between white and Black students; and bolstering segregation by economic status.
A huge positive for the post-integration argument is the Black Studies movement that swept colleges and universities nationally offering Black students and others a chance to learn about Black (Pan-African) history, science, arts, social sciences, etc. from a more accurate and less “whitewashed” perspective.
The argument that the education we received before integration gave us more pride and sense of community is strong in theory and in practice. Countless individuals educated during that period served as the change agents that made countless advancements for Blacks possible because of that pride instilled in them to live their lives on a mission to improve the race.
However, that injection of race pride was real and complete during our pre-integration days, integration would not have seen Blacks leaving Black communities behind at the first opportunity to give their money to white businesses because we believed, in the words of Malcolm X “that the white man’s ice is colder and the white man’s milk is sweeter.”
Still, as has been stated, Blacks were educated to live their life on a mission to improve the race. And that “race consciousness” and the accomplishments that came from it, cannot be discounted. We literally would not be here today without it.
[WINNER: BEFORE INTEGRATION]
Here is what several Defender readers had to say on the subject:
I think life was better before integration! We had our own schools, businesses, banks, etc. I believe we would’ve surpassed our oppressors by now, intellectually and economically if we’d never integrated. We loved and protected each other. I believe in separate but equal. (KaRa Ma’at)
No. Life was legally and definitively worse. While many philosophers may believe that the community was stronger internally prior to desegregation, the fact is that same community would have been destroyed by not having a seat at the (counter) that Brown v Board of education, desegregation, and the subsequent amendments such as the privileges and immunities and commerce clauses provided. Without desegregation, Black Americans would have been legally starved and unable to take part in education, commerce and active growth. And while there is no perfect societal change that will reverse the social norms that have been relinquished, the very fact that we can have the conversation is proof positive that desegregation has moved the masses. Any form of isolationism, whether forced, imposed or voluntary cannot be maintained and will eventually end in the collapse of that machine. (Kamau Mason)
I think it was better then, particularly in terms of schools and identity. When we had our own schools we learned Black history, the Black national anthem, and had Black college tours. Nowadays since we’ve assimilated so much, these kids don’t know a thing about Black history, the Black national anthem. Hell, the mixed ones don’t even know they’re Black! Also, when we had our own we went to church more and I think the parents had better control over their kids and neighbors’ kids. Desegregation really took away, rather than gave, in my opinion. (Angela N. Brown)
I don’t think there is a “better“ in the Black experience in America regarding pre or post-integration. “Different” for sure, but not necessarily “better”. I don’t think Black people truly had the freedom to explore self-determination during integration. There was always an atrocity or sabotage lurking near every effort that Black folks made to do for themselves. More often than not, it was local/federal government sanctioning and even committing the destruction of those efforts. White folks had impunity then and virtual impunity now. The police and legal system were as corrupt then as they are now. During segregation we were at least “poised” for self-determination, now we clamor for a delusional acceptance into American society that we should know by now will never be realized as long as the status quo maintains. (Sen Olushola)
When I was about 7-8 years old, I accompanied my dad to a meeting of Brooklyn CORE. On the way home, I could see he was very upset. When I asked him about it, he explained that the members of the group were totally committed to fighting for desegregation. When I asked him why that upset him so, he told me that desegregation would destroy the Black community! I pondered that from then until now, and my dad was absolutely correct. Before “integration,” all of our successful people could only serve Black people. Our doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers…they all lived in our communities, so our children had access to mentors, were well-educated by teachers who were hell-bent on making them twice as capable of others. (Imani Karega)