Elusive equality

March 12, 2007

A recent analysis shows significant improvements in how African-American children in Maryland are faring in a variety of developmental and educational areas compared with their white counterparts. That's the good news. The bad news is that stubborn gaps persist, leaving a lot more work to be done in the struggle for equality.

Persistent disparities are hardly confined to Maryland. National data from 2003 and 2004 show that African-American, Native American and Latino children generally fared worse than whites on indicators such as child poverty or percentage of children living in families with either a single parent or where no parent is employed full time. When Maryland's Kids Count partnership, a coalition of child advocacy organizations, looked at similar indicators, it found general progress in areas such as the teen birth rate and juvenile arrests for nonviolent as well as violent crimes. But it also found a continuing black-white chasm.

For example, from 2002 to 2006, there was a 63 percent increase in the number of black third-graders who were ranked as proficient or advanced in reading on state assessments, but their total rate still lagged behind that of whites by 28 percent. Similarly, despite impressive gains in the rates of infant mortality and low-birth-weight babies, African-American babies were still nearly twice as likely to die or to be born under normal weight as white babies.

There are many contributing factors to these persistent disparities, including continuing vestiges of discrimination and, in too many instances, inadequate access to quality services. Ultimately, improving conditions for African-American parents, including health care, employment, educational opportunities and housing, is crucial to improving results for African-American children. But improvements don't add up to equality, and gaps are seen, to varying degrees, across urban and rural areas and in areas of concentrated poverty. The report is a sobering reminder that race still matters and that broad-based and targeted efforts to address disparities are still important.

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