Blacks Are Getting Happier
Baird, Julia, Newsweek
Byline: Julia Baird
Whites are not. Ask your mother why.
it's been an ugly time in race relations lately. Radio host Laura Schlessinger used the N word 11 times in five minutes; Shirley Sherrod, a black woman who preached redemption, was accused of hating whites; and professional provocateur Glenn Beck described himself and his fans as the real "inheritors and protectors of the civil-rights movement." Not like those, um, say, African-Americans who were denied actual rights? Last year he claimed President Obama secretly hated white people, fueling an anxiety about hidden agendas that is as palpable as it is irrational.
But as the spit, froth, and noise continue, one of the most profound cultural shifts in the past half century has gone unnoticed. That is, while whites have become less happy, African-Americans have grown a lot happier. Blacks are still not as happy, overall, as whites, but in seminal new research--which tracks the changes in happiness levels by race since the 1970s for the first time--economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers from the University of Pennsylvania found that the gap between black and white happiness has declined by about 40 percent. Wolfers said: "It is the largest and most important change in happiness for any population I have ever seen."
Why this is the case remains somewhat of a mystery. What is fascinating is that it can only be partly explained by the usual objective measures, like education, health, and income: there has been almost no improvement in earnings compared with whites since 1980, and little in education since 1990. In 1972 black family income was 58 percent that of whites; by 2004 it had inched up only to 64 percent. Black families are still three times as likely as white families to be living in poverty.
Yet there are three possible reasons this dramatic shift may have occurred. First, three decades ago the gap between black and white happiness was "astonishingly large"--life was miserable for African-Americans then.
Second, it is clear that what has changed most are things that we cannot measure, and which spring from rights, heightened status, and erosion of prejudice. Stevenson and Wolfers write: "Our study illustrates that the fruits of the civil rights movement may lay in other, more difficult to document, improvements in the quality of life. …