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Michelle Singletary: Black males are at the bottom of the economic ladder, that’s why I won’t stop being a helicopter parent to my black son

SHARE Michelle Singletary: Black males are at the bottom of the economic ladder, that’s why I won’t stop being a helicopter parent to my black son

WASHINGTON — I'm the mother of a black male, and I'm worried about his financial future.

My son will turn 20 at the end of the month, and there is one thing that is causing him a great deal of stress. He's concerned about finding the right career path and making enough money to live well.

By any reasonable measure, my son should have an upper hand in life. He's the product of a two-parent household. He lived all his life in upper-income neighborhoods. He attended private school. Both my husband and I have advanced degrees. We earn good money.

But I've always known he has a harder road to walk. Even when he was a toddler, I began to see the differences in how my son was treated. Where his sisters were given grace for mistakes, he was handled more harshly. His tears were met with "buck-it-up" responses. Although my son is on the autism spectrum, he's always done well in school. Yet his ability to succeed was constantly questioned.

Now comes a new report that further feeds my concerns for my son.

In 99 percent of neighborhoods in the U.S., black boys grow up to earn less than white boys who are raised in families with comparable income, according to a study from the Equality of Opportunity Project. Even black boys who come from wealthy families, living on the same block, still earn less as adults than white boys with similar upbringings.

"When we compare the outcomes of black and white men who grow up in two-parent families with similar levels of income, wealth and education, we continue to find that the black men still have substantially lower incomes in adulthood," the report said.

My heart dropped. Here is confirmation from groundbreaking work on the economic gap between black and white males. The paper is called "Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States: An Intergenerational Perspective," by Raj Chetty of Stanford University, Nathaniel Hendren of Harvard University and Maggie R. Jones and Sonya Porter, both from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The team analyzed rates of upward and downward mobility across generations using census data on 20 million children and their parents. Researchers found that black children born to lower-income parents have difficulty improving their economic status compared with similarly situated whites. And the gap is substantial. For black children in the bottom rung of household income, there is a 2.5 percent chance of them rising to the top tier of household income, compared with 10.6 percent for whites.

But the most startling result from the research was this: Growing up in a high-income family doesn't provide insulation from income disparities for black boys.

So why is there a gap?

Could it be because the boys are more likely to come from a single-parent household?

No, marital status played only a limited role in explaining the disparity.

What about ability? Researchers dismissed this, too.

They found that when considering what their parents earn, black women have incomes and wage rates comparable to white women, despite having much lower test scores. This, the researchers said, "suggests that tests do not accurately measure differences in ability."

If it's not a matter of parental marriage or education level, or household wealth or test scores, then what?

It may be environmental, according to the research.

"These findings suggest that reducing the black-white income gap will require efforts whose impacts cross neighborhood and class lines and increase upward mobility specifically for black men."

My son is a sophomore at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, a school that boasted a great reputation for academics long before it was the darling of the nation for becoming the first men's No. 16 seed to ever beat a No. 1 seed in the March Madness tournament.

UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III has for decades made it his mission to help his African-American male students flourish. He sees them as his own sons, and he's pioneered scholarship programs for them with strong mentoring components.

"The structural racism problem is real," said Hrabowski, author of "Beating the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African-American Males." "Black males at every level are at risk of not doing well. This should be a wake-up call for everybody."

For my part, I always ignored people who said I needed to step back as my son got older. Nonsense.

The odds are against him and too much is at stake for us to watch from a distance as our black boys sink or swim. I have regular talks with his college counselor and, together with my son, we've developed a team approach to make sure he excels.

Call me a helicopter parent if you want, but this research proves that our black boys — including my son — can't afford a hands-off approach.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter at SingletaryM or Facebook at facebook.com/MichelleSingletary.