Progress for African Americans? Yes, and No

Martin Luther King at podium
Dr. Martin Luther King delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington on August 28, 1963. National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikimedia

All the discussions today of how much racial progress we’ve made since Dr. Martin Luther King was alive reminded me of a disturbing point about the black−white health gap mentioned in recent research, some of which I discussed in an Atlantic essay over the weekend.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, African Americans have been catching up with whites in terms of life expectancy at birth. So things are looking up, right?

Yes, and no. To a sizeable extent, what explains the narrowing of the life-expectancy gap in the last couple decades is not just that things are better for African Americans (though they have improved), but also that things are worse for whites—working-class whites above all.

A New York Times piece over the weekend highlighted this fact. “A once yawning gap between death rates for blacks and whites has shrunk by two-thirds”—but that’s not because both groups are doing better, according to the article. Overall mortality has declined for African Americans of all ages, but it has risen for most whites (specifically, all groups except men and women ages 54-64 and men ages 35-44).

Furthermore, younger whites (ages 25-34) have seen the largest upticks in deaths, largely because of soaring rates of drug overdoses, and those who have little education are dying at the highest rates. The mortality rate has dropped for younger African Americans, a decline apparently driven by lower rates of death from AIDS. Together these trends have cut the demographic distance between the two groups substantially.

For middle-age African Americans, the progress in improving health outcomes implied by the shrinking black−white mortality gap is also less cause for celebration than it might seem at first.

A much-discussed study last year by the economists Anne Case* and Angus Deaton found that huge spikes in deaths by suicide and drug poisonings over the last couple decades have meant that the trend of declining mortality rates we’ve seen for generations actually reversed for whites ages 45-54 between 1999 and 2013. Again, those with little education were hit the hardest.

In my Atlantic piece, I pointed out that the growing social isolation and economic insecurity of the white working class might explain some of these trends. One of the caveats I mentioned is that death and disease rates remain much higher among African Americans and Latinos. (I should have been more precise in the article: although Latinos have higher rates of chronic liver disease, diabetes, obesity, and poorly controlled high blood pressure, they have lower rates of cancer and heart disease, and lower or at least equivalent rates of death).

But it’s not just that the black−white gap persists. Here’s an important passage from Case and Deaton’s paper:

Over the 15-[year] period, midlife all-cause mortality fell by more than 200 per 100,000 for black non-Hispanics, and by more than 60 per 100,000 for Hispanics. By contrast, white non-Hispanic mortality rose by 34 per 100,000. CDC reports have highlighted the narrowing of the black−white gap in life expectancy. However, for ages 45–54, the narrowing of the mortality rate ratio in this period [1999−2013] was largely driven by increased white mortality; if white non-Hispanic mortality had continued to decline at 1.8% per year, the ratio in 2013 would have been 1.97. The role played by changing white mortality rates in the narrowing of the black−white life expectancy gap (2003−2008) has been previously noted. It is far from clear that progress in black longevity should be benchmarked against US whites.

Let me reiterate their point: for Americans ages 45-54, the narrowing in the black−white gap in life expectancy in recent decades was “largely driven” by more deaths among whites.

It’s heartening that overall life expectancy is increasing for many Americans, including African Americans. But it’s also important to remember that, almost a half century after King’s death, people of all races continue to be left out of this country’s progress, and some—whites and nonwhites—may, in fact, be seeing an unprecedented step backward.

* I want to apologize to Dr. Anne Case for mistakenly identifying her as “Susan Case” in the original version of my article in the Atlantic. (The only reason I can think of for why I made that dumb mistake is that a friend of mine is named Susan Caisse.) This brilliant scholar has already suffered the injustice of having her study erroneously called the “Deaton and Case study” rather than the “Case and Deaton study” (for better or worse, first authorship is everything to us academics), and here I’ve added insult to indignity. My sincere apologies.

This post was first published on In The Fray.

‘The Lonely Poverty of America’s White Working Class’

Lonely house with man standing in front next to carThe Atlantic has published my take on the recent study on rising mortality rates for working-class white Americans.

“… policies to keep people from sinking into poverty and long-term unemployment can make a huge difference. In advanced industrial nations that have stronger social safety nets, the working class is not experiencing the rising death rates that Case and Deaton identified. Abroad, many of the working-class unemployed benefit from a financial backstop of sorts that keeps them from hurtling into the deepest forms of desperation. Here in the U.S. they would too, if only there were such a thing.”

Read the front-page story here.

My Op-Ed in The Atlantic: ‘Forget Denmark—Emulate Canada’

The Atlantic

I wrote about how policies matter for The Atlantic. While Denmark came up during last week’s Democratic presidential debate, my take is that we should — and could — be more like Canada.

“If the goal of the next president is to rebuild the middle class, then following the policy lead of Canada—a country where there is less income inequality and a greater likelihood that those born at the bottom of the economic ladder can rise to the top—is a shrewd strategy. And it’s also a strategy well within our reach.”

Read more here. (It was also picked up by the Albany Times Union opinion blog.)

Ethnography & Journalism

The Journalist and the Ethnographer textIn my first blog post over at, I kicked off a discussion about the relationship between ethnography and journalism. I have a background in both areas.

Here’s some of what I said: “Like journalists, can we also be confidence men and women—gaining trust and betraying it? Furthermore, do we have to do that—in order to gain access to begin with, and in order to be truthful to the reality we describe? That’s the age-old question in research ethics, of course.”

Read more and chime in here.

My First In-Studio Interview on the Leonard Lopate Show (LIVE!)

The Leonard Lopate Show, WNYC
The Leonard Lopate Show, WNYC

I am thrilled (if nervous) to share that I am scheduled to go on the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC on Monday at 12 noon (E.T.). Please tune in at 93.9 FM and AM 820 if you’re in the New York area, or listen online. I will get to talk with him live and in person at WNYC’s studio in downtown Manhattan.WNYC

Hopefully it goes well. As my wife says, the man could read a phone book and it would make for compelling radio.

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Sociologists Unite

I’m looking forward to catching up with friends and colleagues at the American Sociological Association annual meeting in Chicago this weekend. Hmm, wonder what people think sociologists do when they gather en masse?

Sociologist Meme
Via Know Your Meme

(I’m pretty sure my supervisor doesn’t think I sleep on the job, though she is rather suspicious of the comfy couch in my office …)

This week, I’ll be taping several radio interviews—stay tuned for airtimes and podcast info.

Here’s my recent interview with Detroit’s Peter Werbe:

Click here to listen to more interviews.

Review, Upcoming Interviews

Radio show host and book club president Cyrus Webb just reviewed Cut Loose on Amazon:

5.0 out of 5 stars Victor Tan Chen shares real-life examples of what needs to be done with the job market in CUT LOOSE, August 8, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 8.57.32 AM

…when we hear numbers about who isn’t working or how the labor market seems to be changing we can forget that these are not JUST numbers. These are lives that are being impacted either positively or negatively by the ability to have a job, take care of one’s self and one’s family.In the book CUT LOOSE author Victor Tan Chen does an amazing job of putting a name and real-life circumstance to some of those who we have heard only statistics about—and I think all of us would be better for reading it.

Read more.

Listen to our recent conversation here.

This week, you can catch me on the programs below. Podcast links will be updated as they are made available.

Monday, Aug. 10, 9:30 a.m. E.T.
Returning to Tony Trupiano: The Voice of the People
Listen live at BlogTalkRadio.

Wednesday, Aug. 12, 3 p.m. E.T.
The Joe Show, KBAI 930 AM, Bellingham, Washington
Podcast available here.

Thursday, Aug. 12, 8 p.m. E.T.
Progressive Forum, KPFT 90.1 FM, Houston, Texas
Listen to archive.

Sunday, Aug. 16, 7:10 a.m. E.T.
Conversations with Peter Solomon
Listen live on WIP AM, Philadelphia, or online.

Please sign up here to get my blog posts by email.

Click here to listen to previous interviews.

Radio Show Update

I’ll be on additional radio programs in the next few days. Also, The Bill Newman Show will be Friday rather than Thursday as originally scheduled. Here’s the latest:

Thursday, Aug. 6, 2 p.m. E.T.
The Union Edge
WPWC 1480 AM, Washington, D.C. (check list for other stations).
Podcast available here. (Segment begins at 7:15)

Thursday, Aug. 6, 6:59 p.m. E.T.
Listen live online or on KOPN 89.5 FM, Columbia, Missouri (check back for direct podcast link).

Friday, Aug. 7, 9:22 a.m. E.T. (rebroadcast at 6:22 p.m.)
The Bill Newman Show
Listen live online or on WHMP 1400/1240 AM or 96.9 FM, Northampton, Massachusetts.

Sunday, Aug. 9, 6 a.m. E.T.
The Peter Werbe Show, WRIF 101, Detroit
Podcast available here. (Segment begins at 1:38:00)

Sunday, Aug. 9, 9 p.m. E.T.
UComm Radio with Kris LaGrange, 77ABC New York, New York
Podcast available here. (Segment begins at 2523.)

Please sign up here to get my blog posts by email.

Click here to listen to previous interviews.

Live This Week

Updated Thursday, Aug. 6, 8:00 a.m.

I’ll be calling into four live radio programs—based in Michigan, Mississippi, Vermont, and Massachusetts—this week. I’ll also be on a taped segment scheduled to air in Detroit next Sunday morning.

Monday, Aug. 3, 9:30 a.m. E.T.
Returning to Tony Trupiano: The Voice of the People
Podcast available at BlogTalkRadio.

Monday, Aug. 3, 1 p.m. E.T.
Cyrus Webb’s Conversations LIVE
Podcast available at BlogTalkRadio.

Tuesday, Aug. 4, 1:35 p.m. E.T.
Equal Time
Podcast available at Equal Time Radio, Vermont.

Friday, Aug. 7, 9:22 a.m. E.T. (rebroadcast at 6:22 p.m.)
The Bill Newman Show
Listen live online or on WHMP 1400/1240 AM or 96.9 FM, Northampton, Massachusetts.

Sunday, Aug. 9, 6 a.m. E.T.
The Peter Werbe Show
Listen live (site registration required) at WRIF (check back for direct podcast link).

Please sign up here to get my blog posts by email.

Click here to listen to previous interviews.