This piece was originally published in The Nevada Independent.
As we remember the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his quest for racial equality, we observe that African Americans in Nevada have made tremendous political gains. However, they continue to struggle economically, revealing the damaging and stubborn effects of historical discriminatory policies, which limited access to capital and segregated neighborhoods and schools.
African Americans account for 10.3 percent of the population in Nevada; 13.1 percent in Clark County, 3.7 percent in Nye County, 2.8 percent in Washoe County, and even smaller percentages in the remaining counties. African Americans in Southern Nevada enjoy significant political success. The civil rights legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., the power of churches in historic West Las Vegas, and the social capital and networks built by long-standing sororities and fraternities (e.g., Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, etc.), have cemented a power base that has given African Americans tremendous political standing.
African Americans sit on the Ninth Circuit and the federal bench. They serve on the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents, Clark County Board of Commissioners, North Las Vegas City Council, and Las Vegas City Council. In the last decade alone, there have been several firsts: the first African American congressman, state attorney general, state Senate majority leader, Assembly speaker, adjutant general of the Nevada National Guard, chair of the Nevada Gaming Control Board and UNLV president. Sadly, we just lost one of our African American political giants – former state Senator Joe Neal.
“True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr
Despite political success, African Americans in Nevada still lag their peers economically. Nationally, in 2019, the median net worth of African American families ($24,100) was only 13.0 percent that of white families ($188,200). This disparity can be attributed, in part, to “inheritances and other intergenerational transfers” and discriminatory policies, such as redlining. In Nevada, the average household monthly income for whites (not including Latinos) in 2019 was $5,024 compared to $3,202 for African Americans. The 2018 poverty rate for African Americans in Nevada was 21.5 percent, significantly higher than the poverty rate for whites (8.9 percent). The unemployment rate for African Americans is consistently higher than that of their peers in Nevada, even during periods of economic growth. Given the gaps in income and wealth, it is not surprising that African Americans have among the lowest home ownership rates in Nevada (at 28.0 percent), compared to the home ownership rate for whites (63.0 percent).
Very few African Americans serve on Nevada’s corporate boards or in senior leadership positions in leading companies. Just as uncommon are African Americans who serve in leadership positions of the Silver State’s largest nonprofits.
The weak economic position of African Americans in Nevada is related, in part, to generally poor educational outcomes and low educational attainment levels. As of 2019-2020, African American students accounted for 11.4 percent of all K-12 public school students and almost 15 percent of all students in the Clark County School District (CCSD). In 2019-2020, African American students had the lowest high school graduation rate (72.2 percent), which was more than 10 percentage points lower than the state average (84.1 percent). Only 18.8 percent of African Americans in Nevada received their bachelor’s degree, compared to whites (29.8 percent) and Asians (38.0 percent).
Even the students who pursue post-secondary education pathways struggle. The graduation rate for African American students at Nevada’s two-year institutions is 6.5 percent, compared to 19.4 percent for whites. At the Silver State’s four-year colleges, the graduation rate for African Americans was 35.5 percent, compared to 53.5 percent for whites. Low levels of educational attainment may explain why African Americans are often overrepresented in some low-wage sectors.
Data suggest that the education cards are stacked against African American students from the outset of their educational career, resulting in limited opportunity and even fueling the school-to-prison pipeline. For example, African American students comprise 15 percent of Clark County School District’s population but account for 40 percent of the suspensions in all grades, as well as 40 percent of suspensions among students in pre-kindergarten to second grade. Only six percent of Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) students are African American. And African Americans are significantly under-represented in enrollment in CCSD’s award-winning career and technical academies (CTAs).
Why hasn’t the political power of African Americans translated into economic gains? And more importantly, how can we collectively begin to meaningfully address these persistent economic disparities?
Scores of studies and books have documented the systemic biases and effects of racial discrimination in classrooms, schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, and boardrooms. African Americans in Nevada have suffered the same unfortunate effects of systemic basis as have African Americans nationally. By way of example, the Moulin Rouge built in 1955 represents both the best and worst of Nevada’s African American history. The Moulin Rouge is recognized as the first integrated casino in the country and is registered as a national landmark—a testament to Nevadans’ willingness to be trailblazers in race relations. However, we have neglected this piece of Nevada history as we have neglected to fully address the legacy of systemic racism in our state. We have both a Mob Museum and a Neon Museum, but we have no museum (or development plan) for the Moulin Rouge.
Improving economic outcomes for Nevada’s African American residents will require a collective commitment, focused attention, resources, and significant policy changes at the state and federal levels. In a promising move, President-elect Joe Biden recently named two members to his National Economic Council who have both worked previously on the racial wealth gap. Locally, policy makers and leaders may want to consider the following policies that could expand access to capital, facilitate investment in Nevada’s distressed communities, and support student success.
Expand community banking and community development financial institutions. Community banks play a critical role in local economic development. Nevada ranks #42 in the number of community banks with 15 community banks; for some context, Utah ranks #38 with 31 community banks. Analysts also have suggested that community development financial institutions (CDFI), which “provide capital to strengthen communities that are experiencing economic distress or are underserved by mainstream lenders,” play an important role in fueling local community development. According to the U.S. Department of Treasury, Nevada has received far fewer CDFI funds than other states with similar populations.
Broaden and scale the work of community development corporations. Community development corporations (CDCs) are “nonprofit, community-based organizations focused on revitalizing the areas in which they are located, typically low-income, underserved neighborhoods that have experienced significant disinvestment.“ While Nevada has several CDCs, they are low-capacity and low-activity. In the absence of a highly successful CDC (or collective of CDCs), the development of the historic Westside, including the Moulin Rouge site, and other distressed communities (e.g. Pittman) has floundered.
Support federal place-based initiatives. Historical efforts to revitalize distressed communities have relied on “attracting outside investment to grow jobs and businesses rather than advancing local empowerment and economic mobility through wealth-building.” A recent Brookings Institution report suggests that to maximize local wealth-building, “the federal government should establish and capitalize state revolving loan funds that would provide direct seed funding to locally managed neighborhood investment funds that allow residents—together with other private, public, and nonprofit sector investors—to purchase and develop or redevelop land or buildings in [distressed] communities.” State leaders could leverage this sort of initiative to revitalize some of Nevada’s most distressed neighborhoods.
Track demographic disparities in employment opportunities, educational achievement, wealth, and housing, and incarceration. Policy makers should use this data to develop targeted policies to address the extent to which disparities are based upon discrimination. State leaders should explore additional funding and greater authority for the Nevada Equal Rights Commission to address identified patterns of discrimination.
Expansion of high-quality educational programs. In January 2020, Clark County School District released its report, “Achieving Equity And Access In TheClark County School District,” which acknowledged the disparities in access and educational achievement in the district. District leaders should develop and publicly share a plan (and provide updates) to address barriers and expand African American students’ access to GATE, advanced math classes, and seats at award-winning CTAs.
The achievements of African Americans in Nevada are a testament to their perseverance despite systemic bias and to the support they have received from other Nevadans. Yet, the historical scars of devastating policies and long-standing patterns of discrimination in Nevada are unmistakable. All of us must be committed to addressing these effects if we are to truly live up to the ideals of Martin Luther King, Jr. As Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” And while the work demands courage and requires time, “we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future.”