Updated April 2009


Estimated population in 2005: 34.9 million

First language/s: English

Religion/s: Christianity, Islam

African Americans make up 12.9 per cent of the US population, the second largest minority group (after Latinos), numbering approximately 38.8 million. Once called Negroes and now called ‘black' Americans or (evoking solidarity with other non-white minorities around the world) ‘people of colour', they are mainly descendants of slaves brought from Africa between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

Their history of forced immigration to the United States is unique among US minorities and, compared to slaves elsewhere, African Americans were uniquely de-cultured and dehumanized, their misery treated as ‘natural' and benign. Today, they are an important minority in a nation with a singular degree of world influence. Much of the USA's vitality can be credited to African Americans, but white-black conflict remains a definitive, often sotto voce reality.

Besides the traditional African American community, the United States has been home in recent years to an increasing number of other black immigrants. Some come from war-torn African nations like Somalia; others, seeking economic improvement, come from Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba, Guyana and other Caribbean nations.

Much of the African American population is urban. According to the US Census of 2000 they make up 81.6 per cent of the Detroit population, 67.3 per cent of the population in New Orleans, 64.3 per cent of the population in Baltimore and 60 per cent of the population in Washington DC. Other cities with large African American populations are Atlanta, St Louis, Newark, Philadelphia and Cincinnati.

The 2000 US Census found that African American men and women aged 16 and older had similar labour force participation rates (61 and 60%, respectively), and a higher proportion of African American women (30%) than African American men (20%) were in management, professional and related occupations. A higher proportion of African American men (28%) than African American women (10%) were in production, transportation and material-moving jobs. The highest concentrations of employed African American men were in these occupation groups.

Historical context

Black people arrived with British and Dutch settlers in the early colonial period, and officially enjoyed equal rights with whites, although impoverished blacks and whites alike were subject to indentured servitude. Soon, however, seafaring entrepreneurs imported African slaves in large numbers as labourers, and by the 1670s statutes enforcing slavery were adopted by each of the Thirteen Colonies.

Although slavery was instituted mostly for economic reasons, racist beliefs became entrenched as slavery and African Americans became linked in the white colonial mind. During the Revolutionary War, both slaves and free blacks fought for the Colonies, but the subsequent 1787 Constitution included three clauses reinforcing slavery. Blacks were designated as property and counted as ‘three-fifths of a person'. All told, slavery was an important part of the US economy for more than two centuries, despite slave revolts, an elaborate ‘underground railroad' network for escaped slaves, and consistent protest from white and black abolitionists.

Abolition of slavery  

Between 1777 and 1804, each of the northern states responded to changing moralities and urban labour shortages by abolishing slavery. But in the south, slaves were key to the enormous plantation system. The issue became part of the growing North-South antipathy that culminated in the mid-nineteenth-century civil war. Towards the end of the war, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, ending slavery in most states.

During the ‘Reconstruction' period after the civil war, the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the US Constitution finally guaranteed African Americans the rights of freedom and full citizenship, including the vote. Soon, African Americans were elected to Congress, were admitted to schools and began to integrate and even intermarry with whites. The first Civil Rights Act passed in 1875, guaranteed access to public facilities and accommodation without regard to race, colour or previous servitude.


The optimism of the time did not last long. White bigots in many states bent the rules to restrict voting rights, and enforced segregation through fear and intimidation. From 1883 to 1952, ‘lynchings' (mob executions) of African Americans were reported every year, often with tacit official approval. This period also saw the advent of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, many of which persist to this day. At the same time, state and federal courts were forging the ‘Jim Crow' system (named after an archetypal figure in the African American minstrel tradition), an apartheid doctrine in which blacks and whites were described as ‘separate-but-equal'. In 1883, the Civil Rights Act was deemed unconstitutional, and in 1896 the Supreme Court upheld the separate-but-equal rule in Plessey v. Ferguson.

Riots and protest did little to stem the tide, and the African American condition did not improve visibly in the first half of the twentieth century. However, many African American musicians, artists and poets came to prominence in the ‘Harlem Renaissance' of the 1930s, and black athletes began to break colour bars in the Olympics and professional team sports. The African American community was developing autonomous institutions like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP, in 1901), the National Urban League (1911) and Caribbean-born Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association, which promoted black self-determination and the idea that blacks should go ‘back to Africa', culturally or even physically (1920s). African American colleges and universities became popular. The Supreme Court slowly eroded the bases of Jim Crow, deciding one by one against state laws that segregated interstate bus travel, housing and neighbourhoods, or withheld voting rights.

Civil rights 

The watershed Supreme Court ruling for African American civil rights came in 1954. Brown v. Topeka Board of Education held that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, and that ‘separate' was inherently unequal. The main legal plank of Jim Crow was demolished.

Energized by Brown and led by coalitions of black organizations with the inspiration of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the Civil Rights Movement used non-violent resistance to shatter segregation in the early 1960s. Civil rights activists held sit-ins in segregated establishments, boycotted segregated buses and held ‘Freedom Rides' into segregated areas. Voter registration drives all over the South helped ensure that black voters would be represented. In 1963, 250,000 Americans – blacks, whites and others, including major religious leaders – participated in the March on Washington for civil rights. Dr King, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, was assassinated by a white man in 1968. In 1986 a public holiday was instituted to commemorate his life, the first time a black American has been thus honoured. Support from Jewish organizations, church and labour groups, students and others gave the civil rights movement an inter-racial character, which made it much more effective. Still, some whites fought back. Lynchings were the most dramatic form of retaliation. Riots broke out in many urban centres, and police brutality against protestors was widespread. Many African Americans, especially youth, thought the non-violent style championed by King an inadequate response.

The Nation of Islam, a militant Black Muslim organization founded in the 1930s by dissenters from the Garvey movement and the mystical Moorish Science Temple, established temples throughout the north in the 1960s. It recruited many followers through the charismatic, controversial leadership of Malcolm X, although Malcolm later broke with the Nation. The Black Power movement was launched in 1966, advocating African American block voting and community control of institutions, organizations and resources. The Black Panther Party, both a community renewal programme and a Marxist revolutionary force, was also formed in 1966. These militant groups terrified governments and were opposed by many moderate blacks. In the late 1960s, like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X was assassinated. Over the next decade, many other activists died in suspicious circumstances, were imprisoned, succumbed to fatigue or went into exile.

However, in the early 1960s the shift towards equal rights gained support in the upper levels of government. The Voting Rights Act broke down entrenched and Byzantine regulations that prevented blacks from exercising their franchise. Blacks began to make gains in Congress and the Senate, and even bigger gains in regional and municipal politics. Affirmative-action measures helped establish a sizeable African American middle class for the first time.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, white and black children were ‘bussed' to schools outside their immediate neighbourhoods to promote school desegregation. Resentment and resistance to change came to focus on this issue. There were heated protests, and many white children were removed from the public system. During the 1970s and 1980s, ‘white flight' from many more-integrated cities to all-white suburbs left blacks and other minorities isolated in inner-city ghettos, whose tax bases and government infrastructure funding gradually declined. This was just one of the factors that the Civil Rights Movement could not anticipate, which would set back many of the victories of the 1960s.

Education and progress 

In higher education, the 1960s saw African Americans gain greater access to colleges and universities, and to courses and programmes on black American and African cultures. The ‘Afrocentric' history and cultural movement of the 1980s promoted new enthusiasm for scholarship within the black community, focusing on black people's contributions to US and world history and civilization. A group of ‘new black intellectuals' also emerged in publishing and the media as spokespeople for African American thought and scholarship.

The three decades after the advent of the Civil Rights Movement saw more progress by African Americans than the whole of the previous century. However, the living conditions of poorer African Americans – more than 40 per cent of the black population – declined further. The writer Andrew Hacker described the situation as tantamount to once again having two nations in the United States, ‘black and white, separate, hostile, unequal' (a reference to Gunnar Myrdal's watershed 1940s race study).


Anger over this situation exploded in 1992 with the ‘Rodney King riots' in Los Angeles and other US cities. Rodney King was a black motorist arrested after a high-speed chase on 3 March 1991. An amateur videotape of the arrest showed several police officers beating a prone, helpless King dozens of times with batons, while other police officers stood by. The tape was broadcast worldwide on the Cable News Network. When, on 29 April 1992, an all-white jury found the officers not guilty of brutality, blacks in Los Angeles took to the streets in fury. Latinos and some whites joined in the riot, which was echoed in unrest in other cities. Over the next three days, 60 people were killed in Los Angeles (LA), 3,000 injured and 15,000 arrested. Thousands of buildings were burned and stores were looted, mostly in minority neighbourhoods. The Rodney King verdict was widely compared to the Supreme Court's 1857 ruling in the Dred Scott case, that ‘black people have no rights that white people are bound to respect'. The federal government later retried four police officers on civil rights grounds, convicting three of the four and giving them minimum-security prison sentences.

The programme of separatism and black self-determination advocated by the Nation of Islam galvanized some African Americans and alienated others, but the Nation has had unmatched success in organizing community action and public protest among the black middle class. It was the driving force behind the Million Man March on Washington of October 1995, a ‘day of atonement' for black male responsibility, pride and self-determination that attracted around 900,000 supporters despite its open exclusion of women and gay men.

Current issues


Despite the surge in voter registration brought about by the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, black participation is still low. African Americans remain massively under-represented in office and in 2007 held only one seat in the US Senate and 42 in the House of Representatives (of which all are Democrats). Some critics say blacks are now effectively unrepresented, because Democrats know they can count on black votes whether or not they advocate African American interests. However, individual African Americans have made gains on the national scene. In 1991, Republican President George Bush appointed the neo-conservative African American Justice Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice were close allies in his 2001 and 2004 cabinets with Rice eventually replacing Powell as Secretary of State .

On November 5 2008, Barack Hussein Obama (47) a first generation African American (partly of Kenyan heritage) who was virtually an unknown first term Democratic senator in 2004, defeated his Republican Party rival John Mc Cain to be elected the first black president in the history of the United States.
The victory which came after an arduous round of 56 primaries and caucuses and relentless coast to coast campaigning was a test of political skill as well as endurance and exposed the deep racial and gender divisions that continue to exist within the party as well as the country.
Obama, who is regarded as an inspirational speaker drew very large crowds of up to 80,000 people. His campaign was characterized by substantial fundraising, exemplary organization and a theme of anti-war and economic policy changes that drew overwhelming support from blacks but also attracted considerable and unprecedented support from younger, more liberal and wealthier voters of all ethnic backgrounds in many states.

Among the personality issues that rose and receded throughout the campaign were those related to class race and religion. One such attack in March 2008 prompted a response from Obama that was generally acclaimed as one of the most significant speeches on race relations to have been made since the civil rights era of the 1960s.Given the racial history of the United States a significant number of African American voters were sceptical of his chances initially, and did not immediately embrace the Obama candidacy, However after a string of victories during the run-up primary elections in states with substantial majority white voters, there was a reassessment of opinion. This eventually led to 96 percent of African American voters casting their ballot for Obama versus three percent for McCain. Moreover the nationwide black vote rose by 2.88 million, to 16.3 million ( 13 per cent) with many African Americans becoming interested enough to register and vote for the first time in the November 2008 presidential election.


Many major US cities, including New York, Chicago, Washington, New Orleans and Los Angeles, have had black mayors. African Americans are also well represented on most large cities' councils. However, politics and funding have limited their attempts to make significant changes in the conditions of urban African Americans, and polls show that African Americans believe politicians from their community still face harsher treatment from their opposition and the media than do whites.

Turning to socio-economic indicators and issues, the statistics on black education are not promising. The 2000 US Census found that 27.7 per cent of African Americans had less than high school education, and only 14 per cent had an undergraduate or higher degree, compared with 19.6 and 24 per cent, respectively, of the total US population. One out of every three black children entering high school drops out, a rate twice as high as for white children. Although illiteracy among African Americans has consistently declined, at 1.6 per cent it is still four times higher than the white rate.

Few African American families can afford the costs of private education, so black children are still faced with the prospect of inadequate education. Efforts at further desegregating schools or providing viable alternatives – for example high-quality ‘magnet' schools that emphasize specialist subjects to attract both black and white students – have been set back by Supreme Court decisions ruling that states could not compel such efforts or be required to fund them.

Economically, there is still a large gap between African Americans and whites. In 1999, the median earnings for both African American men and women were lower than those of the total US population, and much lower than those of their white counterparts, though the gender gap in earnings was smaller between African Americans than between men and women of the general US population. The median earnings of African American men were $30,886, compared with $39,020 for all men and $42,224 for white men. African American women's median earnings were $25,736, compared with $28,820 for all women and $30,777 for white women. African American Oprah Winfrey bucks this trend, however; in 2007 she was declared the world's richest female entertainer and is the world's first black billionaire.

Approximately one-quarter (24.7 per cent) of the black American population live below the poverty level, compared to less than a tenth (8.6 per cent) of whites. The number of African American females in poverty in 1999 was almost twice that of the total female population: 27 per cent compared with 14 per cent. The teenage motherhood rate among young African American women is extremely high, with up to 64 per cent of black children being born to single mothers. The black poverty rate is highest among single women with children. In 2003, there were an estimated 3.1 million black single mothers, 38 per cent of whom raised families below the poverty line.

The unemployment rate for African Americans has consistently been at least twice that of whites since the Second World War. In 1999, 39.8 per cent of blacks were unemployed. Young black men, especially teenagers, encounter an even worse situation: in 2003, only one in five (20 per cent) of young black men aged 16-19 worked, compared to 40 per cent of their white counterparts.

The median income of black households in 2004 was $30,134 and the per capita income as low as $16,035, compared to a median income of $48,977 in white households and a per capita income of $27,414.

African Americans have higher rates of drug abuse than the general population, although as individuals they are more likely to abstain altogether than whites. They are also at high risk for mental illness, heart disease, cancer, AIDS and other major diseases, due to a cluster of factors, including level of education, poverty, stress, poor health care, pollution and family instability. From the 1980s to the present day, addiction to crack (a smokeable cocaine derivative) has been one of the most severe and destabilizing health problems in the African American community. The cocaine use rate has been estimated at about 3 per cent among African Americans, and the intense high and quick addictive action of the drug is partially blamed for increases in prostitution, robbery, violence, pregnancy, urban decay and disease. Sentencing laws and policies relating to the drug also discriminate against African Americans. For example, African Americans make up 15 per cent of users of crack cocaine, but 50 per cent of those incarcerated on crack-related charges. Penalties for crack use (more common in the black community) are more severe than those for cocaine use (more often a white phenomenon). A May 2008 report by the judicial equality advocacy group Human Rights Watch has found that since the beginning of the so-called war on drugs the rates of detention of African Americans increased on average by 225 percent compared to 70 percent for whites.


In 2000, African Americans made up 12.3 per cent of the total US population, and 43.7 per cent of its prison population. Newborn black males have a 1 in 4 chance of being incarcerated in their lifetime. Newborn white males, in contrast, have a lifetime chance of 1 in 23 of being incarcerated. Twelve per cent of African American males aged 20 to 29 years old, compared to 1.7 per cent of their white counterparts, were in prison or jail in 2005. For this reason, human rights abuses in the prison system – including endemic overcrowding, violence at the hands of guards or between prisoners, segregation and other extreme punishments, as well as high rates of AIDS and tuberculosis – have a disproportionate effect on African Americans. African Americans are not only disproportionately victimized by crime; they also offend disproportionately. In the most serious crime, homicide, 52.1 per cent of the perpetrators identified in 2004 were black, and ‘black-on-black’ violence is a serious concern, with 94 per cent of black homicide victims having been killed by blacks. Black crime rates, higher still than the already unusually high crime rate in the United States, have been exacerbated by teenage gang activity and drug-dealing in inner cities. Analysts generally concur that this is caused by the myriad social conditions discussed above. Partly as a result, but also due to the more severe application of the law to African Americans, blacks are stopped by the police, arrested and imprisoned in numbers significantly out of proportion to their general numbers. The practice of racial profiling by the police is widespread. There is ample evidence that black motorists are disproportionately stopped by the police for minor motoring offences because they are assumed to be engaging in more serious criminal activity. This practice, dubbed ‘Driving While Black’, is widespread.


Anti-black bias also affects the application of the death penalty. Killers of white victims are three times more likely to be sentenced to death than killers of black victims, and in 2004 almost 40 per cent of the Death Row population was black. In the early 1990s, the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an African American activist and journalist sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer in 1982, came to symbolize this issue. Jamal's supporters have objected that evidence was excluded from his trial and that his anti-police politics were used in the case against him. Mass protests and petitions from artists, writers, politicians and others around the world called for a new trial. As of July 2007 Mumia Abu-Jamal remains on death row awaiting the judgment from the latest in a series of appeals.

Violence is perhaps the greatest threat to African American health. Homicide is the leading cause of death for black males between 15 and 24 years old, mostly from gunshot wounds. Black women are three times more likely to be killed than white women. In 2004, almost half (46.9%) of all homicide victims in the US were black, and 26 out of every 1,000 African Americans were the victims of a violent crime. According to the Department of Justice African Americans are more likely to be targets of hate crimes than members of any other group. Of the nearly 8,000 hate crimes reported in 1995, almost 3,000 of them were motivated by bias against African Americans.

In 2001, the life expectancy for African American males was 68.6 years and for females 75.5 years, compared to 75 and 80.2, respectively, for their white counterparts. Infant mortality is more than twice as high for African American infants than it is for white, 13.9 and 5.8 deaths, respectively, per 1,000 live-births. The general health care for African Americans is disproportionately poor, a fact recognized in the Disadvantaged Minority Health Improvement Act of 1990. Due to poverty and high unemployment, African Americans are also under-insured for health care. In 2004, almost 20 per cent of black households had no health insurance. African Americans are also at high risk for environmentally related sickness. Toxic waste dumping, waste incinerators, mixed industrial zoning, poor public sanitation and air pollution are all higher in black-dominated residential areas. African American children are two to three times more likely than their white counterparts to suffer from lead poisoning, and many African Americans work in unsafe conditions. In 2002, 71 per cent of African Americans lived in counties that violated air pollution standards, compared to 58 per cent of the white population.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the age-adjusted death rate for African Americans was higher than that of whites by 41 per cent for stroke, 30 per cent for heart disease, 25 per cent for cancer, and more than 750 per cent for HIV/AIDS. A 2006 report by the Black Aids Institute found that more than half of all people living with HIV/AIDS and newly infected with HIV each year in the United States are African American. Among women, African Americans account for two-thirds of all new infections.

The wide socio-economic gaps between African Americans and whites remained high. In 2005, the annual National Urban League report, The State of Black America, found that overall the economic status of African Americans was 1 per cent worse than in the previous year. Using the Equality Index, a statistical measurement of disparities or ‘equality gaps' between blacks and whites across health, education, economics, social justice and civic engagement, the report revealed that the economic status of African Americans is 56 per cent that of whites.

On the positive side, an annual survey of entrepreneur start-ups conducted by the University of California, Santa Cruz showed that in 2005 African Americans experienced the only increase in rates of entrepreneurial activity among major ethnic and racial groups, from an estimated 40,200 starting new businesses per month in 2004 to 46,700 in 2005. According to a 2005 Census Bureau report, since 1997 the number of African American owned businesses rose by 45 per cent.