Black women are now the most educated group in the US: between 2009 and 2010, black women earned 66 per cent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded, 71 per cent of master’s degrees and 65 per cent of doctorates, according to a study by the National Centre for Education Statistics. This is a figure to be celebrated, as today’s graduates will go out into the workforce and shape – we must hope – a more fair, equal and less racist American society.
But the deserved success of these women raises two other questions that must be addressed. The first is over how quickly we will reap the rewards of these women’s talents.
A quarter of black women aged between 16 and 64 had no earnings in 2013 and black women were more likely to be living below the poverty line. Compared with all women, black women in the US were also more likely to hold jobs in the service industry and less likely to be in “white-collar” employment. Their average earnings are lower, by an average of $5,000 (£3,440) a year.
The US workforce must reflect the diversity of talent it now has at its disposal if its progress in making a good education available to all social and racial groups is to be turned into productivity.
The second related question is why are other groups now starting to slip behind in the education stakes while BME women are progressing?
The proportion of black students attending college increased from 10 per cent to 15 per cent between 1976 and 2012; over the same period the proportion of white students fell further, from 82 per cent to just 60 per cent. Asian women are now more likely to be enrolled in college than white women, and white men are faring worst – with only 6.1 per cent studying for a college education. Britain is a facing a similar challenge, with white boys in poor areas less likely to progress into further or higher education than the girls in their class or than boys from other racial groups.
This is not just a matter of culture and aspiration, it is a question of economics: in the US, white workers make up 79 per cent of the total workforce, and 65 per cent of civilian employed men are white. It is to be celebrated that black women are now far closer to achieving their potential thanks to the US education system. Whether the US can learn lessons from that success for all other citizens may prove a marker of its future progress.