Still separate and unequal

Forty years ago, in the wake of riots in Newark and Detroit, President Lyndon Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. The report of the “Kerner Commission,” issued in March 1968, laid out a stunning finding: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

San Antonio’s racial and ethnic tapestry is more complex than the two societies described by the Kerner Commission. Yet despite regular tales of job growth, new opportunities, and urban development, the latest census data reveal that San Antonio is indeed “separate and unequal.”

The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2006 American Community Survey provides the most up-to-date picture of San Antonio and its populace. Let’s start with education. Every serious analysis of big-city competitiveness and economic growth makes clear that the education and skills of the local population are critical to community success. Over the last 20 to 30 years, the cities and metropolitan areas that have well-educated populations, such as Seattle, San Francisco, San Jose and the Silicon Valley, North Carolina’s Research Triangle, and Austin, have managed the greatest economic growth. San Antonio has long been behind these cities, and a great many others, in terms of the proportion of the adult population with a college degree or higher education. But the 2006 Census figures by race and ethnicity show that our real problem is inequality.

For the non-Hispanic white population, the percentage of adults with a college degree or more education comes to 39.6 percent. For our African-American population, the comparable education figure is just 17.1 percent. And for the city’s Hispanic/Latino adults, the proportion with a college degree or more is just 12.7 percent.

San Antonio’s racial and ethnic inequality is also reflected in the 2006 income figures. For white (non-Hispanic) families, median annual income was $70,712. For African-American families, the median income came to $40,593. And for Hispanic/Latino families, annual median income stood at just $37,115. Simply stated, the median family income for whites is just about double that for Hispanic families, and the gap has been increasing since 2000.

This should come as no surprise to those who have followed previous independent research on our community. In 1993, the local Partnership for Hope organization (funded by the Rockefeller Foundation) put out a study entitled “Growth Without Prosperity,” which noted the city’s unusual status as “the single big city in this country with high rates of both growth and poverty.” We have continued to grow over the decade since that report appeared, but as the census data show, our growth — in terms of population and new jobs — has by no means benefited all residents or parts of the city.

We have succeeded in luring new employers to San Antonio and in attracting new residents, but that success has largely resulted in gains for the city’s Anglo population, with Hispanics and African-Americans continuing to fall far behind.

The Kerner Commission brought the issue of inequality to national attention. Here in San Antonio, the issue doesn’t even appear on the civic agenda. Judging by his most focused efforts, San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger believes revising term limits is our most vital public issue. County Judge Nelson Wolff and the county commissioners appear equally focused on finding a way to spend visitor tax dollars, choosing among the alternatives of an embellished AT&T Center, a new performing-arts complex, and river improvements. The issues that seem to most concern our public officials seem to invariably involve building things, from hotels and convention centers to plazas, stadiums, and golf resorts. Those efforts may win some friends and sustain the illusion of progress, but they won’t fix what ails us. And they certainly won’t remedy the persistent education and income inequality that plagues San Antonio. That we’re only given these spending choices amounts to a real failure of local leadership.

For a final word, we can turn to Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser, quoted in The New York Times just a couple of weeks ago on an $850-million plan to revive Buffalo, New York, with new offices, hotels, and stores, including the development of a new Bass Pro Shop:

“It’s crazy to think that you can solve the problems of declining cities by building lots of infrastructure … the turnaround of some cities has been sharply linked to high levels of human capital, or a higher share of the population having college degrees…

“Think about what you could do for the kids of Buffalo with this money.”

Think about what we could do for ours. •