The Elusive Quest for Black Progress
Life expectancy is one of the oldest and surest indicators we have of both human suffering and human progress. Wars, famines, the 1918 flu, vaccines, pasteurization, rising crop yields — so many events over time are encoded in the line of life expectancy, but its overall astonishing ascent is among the best cases for 20th-century humankind that can be made.
I have been staring for months at a graph of life expectancy for Black and white Americans from 1900 to 2017. It tells a story of persistent, if uneven, progress in closing the gap between these groups; it began to reach a promising convergence in the 2010s. Then, the Covid pandemic began. Life expectancy plunged, and graphs of its decline started going viral. Decades of progress in extending human lives have been reversed. Life expectancy for Black and white Americans has diverged again, falling back to where it was in 1995. A gap of nearly five years of expected life now separates us.
For Black Americans, this pattern — years of progress achieved and then erased — is common enough that the idea of racial progress in the U.S. is sometimes called a myth. Many of the indicators we use to track human advancement are particularly stuck for Black Americans, or are moving in the wrong direction. Our diminished life expectancy is not only the product of losing many older Americans to the pandemic but also the consequence of maternal mortality, of children’s deaths from gunshots and of car crashes, all of which disproportionately affect Black people. But a striking narrative of Black progress once captivated the world’s attention.
In 1900, W.E.B. Du Bois went to the Paris World’s Fair to contribute to a showcase called the Exhibit of American Negroes. In the European imagination at that time, the Black American experience was still defined by images of slavery, the Civil War and the grim aftermath. Du Bois and the exhibition’s organizers wanted to present a more current image of Black strivers. It would show them still struggling against the herculean machinery of white supremacy but achieving great strides in literacy, business, land ownership, wealth and in pursuit of happiness in all its forms.
It wasn’t surprising to Du Bois that Black people, who had been treated in the U.S. as property, would be at a great disadvantage in a country built around the interests of white property owners. What was surprising, and what Du Bois tried to illuminate, as Britt Rusert and Whitney Battle-Baptiste chronicle in their book about the exhibit, was the progress Black America was making despite the powerful and deep-rooted forces trying to resist it.
In the 1920s, two decades after he presented at the Paris Exposition, Du Bois visited the Greenwood business district of Tulsa, Okla., to witness one of the country’s pre-eminent beacons of Black economic success. As the founding editor of The Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Du Bois was near the peak of his influence. He considered Greenwood a harbinger, a living example of the possibilities inherent in Black America. Two months after his visit, white Tulsans burned Greenwood to the ground.
When he returned to Greenwood in 1926, Du Bois found that the massacre had not dimmed the community’s spirit. But he was beginning to confront the limits of Black progress, starting to ask questions that would lead to his eventual break with the N.A.A.C.P. and, decades later, with the U.S. itself.
We started Headway, our initiative to look at the world’s challenges through the lens of progress, with a series called Hindsight, asking what lessons can be gleaned from past successes and failures. As we’ve reported on subjects like homelessness, gentrification and displacement, the restraints on Black progress have become a recurring theme.
So we took an interest in a series of reports released in February by Columbia’s Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights, analyzing how racial inequality has persisted — and in some cases grown — across generations in the United States. The Lipman Center commissioned scholars in five different areas — education, health care, housing, criminal justice and economics — to follow trails from the beginning of the 20th century to the present day. The Lipman Center gave us early access to these reports, so I have gotten to sit with their analyses for several months and to talk at length with the authors. Near the beginning of the health report, a graph shows Black and white American life expectancy from 1900 to 2017. I was struck not only by what it showed — the gradual narrowing of the gap between them — but by what it didn’t: the plunge that would soon follow.
What the authors of these reports found partially echoes the journey Du Bois chronicled in Paris in 1900. In each of the areas the scholars considered, Black Americans achieved notable and measurable improvements in our material conditions. But, at nearly every turn, those achievements were fought, threatened and sometimes erased, often with violence as in Greenwood. Over time the narrative of progress that Du Bois presented in the American Negroes exhibit becomes far more complicated.
With Hindsight, I asked readers to test their knowledge of progress. I want to ask you to test your knowledge once again:
As we found in our inaugural Hindsight exploration, indicators like these are imperfect measures of messy human efforts to make progress. In the near century that he lived, Du Bois witnessed firsthand the complex realities underlying his data. Among his visualizations for the Paris exhibit was one that depicts Black illiteracy shrinking, decade over decade — from 99 percent in 1860 to 67.27 percent in 1890. He knew what it took to achieve these gains. In “The Souls of Black Folk,” Du Bois recounted his experiences as a young teacher in rural Tennessee. The demands of crops and babies made the seeming luxury of education for children a challenge. “It was a hard thing,” he wrote, “to dig a living out of a rocky side-hill.”
Yet, when he began his lessons in a humble log schoolhouse, nearly 30 students showed up. Du Bois returned to the village some years later. His favorite student had died, seemingly of overwork. But Doc Burke, one of the farmers with whom he stayed on the weekends, had expanded his still-mortgaged farm by 25 acres. “The Burkes held a hundred acres, but they were still in debt. Indeed, the gaunt father who toiled night and day would scarcely be happy out of debt, being so used to it. Some day he must stop, for his massive frame is showing decline.”
Over the years, the conditions of the rural Black community that Du Bois had gotten to know as a young teacher improved in visible ways. But the costs of those slender gains were visible too, and every advancement was fragile.
“My log schoolhouse was gone,” he wrote. “In its place stood Progress; and Progress, I understand, is necessarily ugly.”
Du Bois died in Accra, Ghana, on Aug. 27, 1963, the day before the March on Washington. He had lived to witness the emergence of the Black civil rights movement as a force capable of transforming the nation. But he had also grown increasingly pessimistic about how far Black Americans could advance in systems that had been founded on their exploitation. The N.A.A.C.P. had formally committed itself to the aim of integration, but Du Bois saw rising hostility toward Black Americans, and he had also seen firsthand the power of Black institutions to educate Black students. He had turned from the possibilities inherent in the Black American “nation within a nation” toward the possibilities represented in the new independent nations in Africa. Late in his life, he joined the Communist Party and left the United States for Ghana, where he became a citizen.
But those images Du Bois brought to Paris, with their narrative of Black American advancement, have found new life. Over the past few years, a movement of scholars and artists have tried to recapture the spirit of Du Bois’s quest to chart Black progress. Since 2021, hundreds of tweets have been logged to the Twitter hashtag #DuBoisChallenge, which invites people to recreate the visualizations from the American Negroes exhibition, using modern methods and tools. In 2020, the artist Jina Valentine exhibited a series of images updating the data contained in Du Bois’s visualizations, some of which we’ve featured here. What struck Ms. Valentine about making these images, she told me in an interview, was the way they reflect not abstract data but the deeply human effort underpinning it. “There’s an artist behind this,” she said. “There’s someone who was gathering the data. There’s someone who created the illustrations. It’s 100 percent subjective.”
In the months ahead, we’ll be following the trails left by Columbia’s scholars for movements toward Black progress in economics, education, health care, housing, safety and justice. For this exploration — which we’re calling Progress, Revisited — we’ll be looking forward and backward at once, trying to find the exemplars of the past and their lessons and legacies in the present day. The questions we’re asking, and which we pose to you below, are these: Are we doing better than our ancestors? Are we building on their best accomplishments? Are we learning from their worst mistakes?
We begin with Victor Luckerson’s revisitation of Greenwood, once the pinnacle of what a Black community could achieve in the U.S. Now, we consider what lessons that community holds for places like Anacostia, the last mostly Black neighborhood in Washington, D.C. For much of the past year, through reporting as well as a series of events and conversations we’ve convened, we’ve been talking with residents of Anacostia about their lives and prospects in a changed and changing city. I was there again with members of the Headway team on May 20 for the Anacostia Riverfront Festival, where we spoke with scores of longtimers and newcomers alike about the past, present and future of their community.
Their hopes and fears about what’s ahead for Anacostia underscore why progress can be so elusive for Black Americans. Greenwood was an economically successful Black community nearly undone by lethal violence. Anacostia’s Black community could be undone by the area’s economic success. Some might call it progress. Du Bois might just call it ugly.
This article was published in association with ‘Uncovering Inequality,’ an examination of more than a century of scholarship developed by the Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights at Columbia University.
The Headway initiative is funded through grants from the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors serving as a fiscal sponsor. The Woodcock Foundation is a funder of Headway’s public square. Funders have no control over the selection, focus of stories or the editing process and do not review stories before publication. The Times retains full editorial control of the Headway initiative.