President Barack Obama attends the commencement ceremony for the 2016 graduating class of Howard University in Washington. AP/Susan Walsh

The president recently told black college grads that life for them would be better than ever, but a new report shows a cloudier outlook.

Researchers at the Pew Research Center spoke to 3,769 adults in the U.S.—1,799 of whom were white, 1,004 black, and 654 “Hispanic”—for a report released Monday on race and racial inequality. The report derives its narrative not only from that wide-reaching survey, but also from empirical data on factors including income, wealth, and homeownership rates between the races. One of the top-line takeaways from the report doesn’t offer much to cheer over:

An overwhelming majority of blacks (88%) say the country needs to continue making changes for blacks to have equal rights with whites, but 43% are skeptical that such changes will ever occur. A much lower share of whites (53%) say the country still has work to do for blacks to achieve equal rights with whites, and only 11% express doubt that these changes will come. Meanwhile, 38% of whites say the necessary changes have already been made, compared with 8% of blacks.

The name of the report says it all: “On Views of Race and Inequality, Blacks and Whites Are Worlds Apart.” And while it’s not inconsistent with past Pew race surveys, it does register some of the most pessimistic views on race relations this century.

It’s a far departure from another recent racial narrative espoused by President Barack Obama, who painted a much more hopeful picture on race during his May 7 commencement address at Howard University. Graduates of this prestigious historically black college were headed back to their home cities, or to new cities, to start life anew and equipped with degrees. Obama’s speech seemed aimed at sending them off with the idea that society is in a far better position to help them prosper than it’s ever been. Said Obama in the address:

So let me begin with what may sound like a controversial statement—a hot take. Given the current state of our political rhetoric and debate, let me say something that may be controversial, and that is this: America is a better place today than it was when I graduated from college. Let me repeat: America is by almost every measure better than it was when I graduated from college. It also happens to be better off than when I took office—but that's a longer story.  

Does Obama’s story on race match up with what the rest of America thinks about race? It’s worth looking at the new Pew report. Below are a few excerpts from Obama’s commencement speech at Howard, annotated with data points from the Pew survey that either support or deflate the president’s racial accounting. From this we can get a sense of what many black graduates can actually expect, compared to their white counterparts, as they enter post-university life.

Obama: “Since the year I graduated, the poverty rate is down. Americans with college degrees, that rate is up.”  

Pew: It’s true that poverty rates have improved for African Americans since the mid-1970s. However, African Americans experience poverty today at more than twice the rate that white Americans do. Meanwhile, the racial gap in income has widened: White median household income was $71,300 in 2014 compared to $43,300 for black households. That 2014 black median household income is less than what the white median household income was in 1967, when it was $44,700. Meaning black families are just now bringing home what white families were earning the year before Martin Luther King was killed.  

Obama: “In 1983, I was part of fewer than 10 percent of African Americans who graduated with a bachelor’s degree. Today, you’re part of the more than 20 percent who will.”  

Pew: Obama would’ve been better off citing high-school graduation stats, where the racial gap has almost evaporated. Meanwhile, the Howard grads will be entering communities where far fewer of their black colleagues will have degrees than their white colleagues: 36 percent of whites over the age of 25 have bachelor’s degrees compared with 23 percent of African Americans.

Obama: “And more than half of blacks say we’re better off than our parents were at our age—and that our kids will be better off, too.”

Pew: The racial wealth gap is even worse than the income gap, with whites’ financial net worth per household over 13 times higher than that of black households. And this wealth gap is not new, despite Obama’s Pollyanna-ish economic perspective: This gap has in fact widened over the years, with the average net worth for a black household in 2014 coming in even lower than what it was for African Americans in 1983.

This means that black people are actually doing worse than many of their parents did.

Obama: “And stay with me now: Race relations are better since I graduated. That’s the truth.”

Pew: No, that’s not the truth. More than a third of African Americans (37 percent) told Pew that race relations are bad right now—and of those, 51 percent say things are only getting worse. Comparatively, only 15 percent of African Americans told Pew that race relations are good right now. 43 percent of African Americans are convinced that the U.S. will not do what it takes to achieve racial equality.

In fact, there are a number of areas in life that the Howard grads will need to navigate—the workplace, the voting booth, bank-loan providers, police, the courts—where they are bound to feel the sting of racial discrimination.   


Obama: “If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be—what nationality, what gender, what race, whether you’d be rich or poor, gay or straight, what faith you'd be born into—you wouldn’t choose 100 years ago. You wouldn’t choose the ‘50s, or the ‘60s, or the ‘70s. You’d choose right now.”

Pew: Obama can have the ‘50s and ‘60s, but by the end of the ‘70s his stance gets a little iffy. Looking at homeownership rates in the report, there are a few years in the ‘80s and the early Aughts when close to half of African Americans owned homes. By 2014, black homeownership rates were lower than they were in 1976.

Owning a house is, of course, not the one measure that determines overall quality of life. African Americans also enjoyed casting ballots with the full protections of the Voting Rights Act in the 1980s, unlike today. But the entire exercise here is folly, considering that no decade has exactly been paradise for African Americans, especially relative to the economic prospects of whites.

Another major issue Pew illuminates, and that Obama’s speech seemed to gloss over, is the fact that those Howard degrees are not guaranteed to offer any special protections from racial inequality. Black people are disproportionally worse off financially than whites, regardless of their education level. From the Pew report:

While median net worth tends to increase as levels of educational attainment rise, the white-black gap in wealth persists even controlling for educational differences.

This may explain why white people who went to college responded in the Pew survey that they were far more satisfied with their financial situations than African Americans who attended college. At the same time, Pew found that college-educated African Americans were less satisfied with their economic conditions than black people who never made it to college.

To say that Obama embellished in his speech is not an understatement. Of course, an inspirational tone is called for during events like college graduations, but these students are also adults who deserved at least a soupçon of honesty and reality. Obama didn’t have to say, “You guys are screwed.” But saying that life for black college grads today is greater than it’s ever been isn’t quite keeping it 100, either.

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