New Harris research finds major racial mobility gains in the Civil Rights Era which have not been sustained

Civil Rights

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s reshaped the United States in a number of ways. A new working paper co-authored by Steven Durlauf—the Steans Professor in Educational Policy and the director of the Stone Center for Research on Wealth Inequality and Mobility at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy—uncovers a previously underdiscussed effect of those heady times: dramatic positive change in occupational mobility for Black Americans born between 1940 and 1950—a change that has not been sustained since.

The study—which was written with  Gueyon Kim, a Stone Center affiliate and Economist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Dohyeon Lee, an Economist at Amazon, and Xi Song, a Stone Center advisor and sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania—investigates the evolution of Black-White inequality over time, focusing on the racial gap in occupational mobility.  It relies on an extensive dataset that combines historical census data from 1850 to 1940 with more contemporary statistics from 10 large-scale surveys covering the 1960s to the present. The results show that while occupational mobility for white men maintained a steady and gradual progression across that timeframe, Black men’s occupational mobility demonstrated a dramatic change solely in the 1940-1950 birth cohort, a group who came of age during the Civil Rights Era.

“Our findings strongly suggest,” says Professor Durlauf, “that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had major effects on U.S. labor market outcomes. While correlation is not causation, this is the most reasonable interpretation of our findings.”

The paper’s datasets highlight the importance of the 1940-1950 birth cohort in shaping the U.S.’s current occupational distribution and reducing its racial gap. Specifically, Black men born in these years showed significant progress in increased upward mobility toward higher skill occupations, like business proprietors and managers—opportunities that likely grew in number and feasibility in the wake of major civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s. The gains in mobility achieved by the 1940-1950 birth cohort in the wake of the Civil Rights Era continue to influence the current U.S. occupational distribution, which is characterized by a notable rise in high-skill occupations for Black men compared to historical trends.

Read the rest of the article published by the Harris School of Public Policy here.

Back to News
Related articles