Women and nonwhite men gradually chipped away at those barriers, in fits and starts. They seized opportunities, like a war effort creating a need for workers to replace the men being sent abroad to fight. They protested and bled and died for civil rights. And when they won victories, it wasn’t just for them, or even for people like them. They generated economic gains that helped everyone.
The Chicago and Stanford economists calculated that the simple, radical act of reducing discrimination against those groups was responsible for more than 40 percent of the country’s per-worker economic growth after 1960. It’s the reason the country could sustain rapid growth with low unemployment, yielding rising wages for everyone, including white men without college degrees.
America’s ruling elites did not learn from that success. The aggressive expansion of opportunity that had driven economic gains was choked off by a backlash to social progress in the 1970s and ’80s. The white men who ran the country declared victory over discrimination far too early, consigning the economy to slower growth. Sustained shared prosperity was replaced by widening inequality, lost jobs and decades of disappointing income growth for workers of all races.
In important ways, much of the work of breaking down discrimination stalled soon after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. “It was fundamentally over by the time of the Reagan presidency,” William A. Darity Jr., a Duke University economist who is one of his profession’s most accomplished researchers on racial discrimination, told me. Over the past several decades, some barriers to advancement for women and nonwhite men have grown back. New ones have grown up beside them.
A host of studies illustrate this. A recent and devastating one is co-authored by a University of Tennessee economic historian, Marianne Wanamaker, who served a year in the White House on President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers. She and a co-worker went back to Reconstruction and measured how much easier it was for the sons of poor white men to climb the economic ladder than the sons of poor Black men.
In terms of economic mobility, they found, the penalty for being born Black is the same today as it was in the 1870s.
Women have made more progress in recent decades than Black men, but they are nowhere close to equality. They still earn less for the same work, and they are still blocked by harassment, discrimination and policies from reaching the same heights as white men in many of America’s most important industries.