African Americans Prospered During the Presidency of Ronald Reagan

Agresti, J. D., & Weisman, A. (2015, March 20). African Americans Prospered During the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. Retrieved from
Agresti, James D., and Weisman, Alec. “African Americans Prospered During the Presidency of Ronald Reagan.” Just Facts. 20 March 2015. Web. 19 June 2024.<>.
Chicago (for footnotes)
James D. Agresti, and Alec Weisman, “African Americans Prospered During the Presidency of Ronald Reagan.” Just Facts. March 20, 2015.
Chicago (for bibliographies)
Agresti, James D., and Weisman, Alec. “African Americans Prospered During the Presidency of Ronald Reagan.” Just Facts. March 20, 2015.

By James D. Agresti and Alec Weisman
March 20, 2015

The Washington Post recently published two opinion pieces in which the authors claimed that the economic policies of President Ronald Reagan—called Reaganomics—wreaked financial havoc on African Americans. To the contrary, the incomes of black households and families broadly rose during the Reagan administration, while in contrast, they have generally fallen during the current economic recovery.

In a March 1st column, Courtland Milloy showered praise on a playwright named August Wilson while wondering aloud if “there was a way for black boys in our public schools to benefit from Wilson’s potentially life-changing insights.” Milloy then proposed creating a school for “boys of color” in which Wilson’s works would help the boys “understand the world around them.” Milloy singled out one of Wilson’s plays entitled King Hedley, which “represents the tumultuous 1980s, when Reaganomics and crack cocaine inflicted damages from which many black communities never recovered.”

Relatedly, in a March 6th op-ed, poet and former model Jewel Allison joined a growing group of women who have stepped forward to accuse Bill Cosby of raping them. Allison stated that Cosby assaulted her in the late 1980s, but she waited more than two decades to reveal this because he was “one of the African American community’s most celebrated and admired icons,” and she did not want to damage his reputation for fear that this would harm other black Americans. “In the 1980s, when The Cosby Show aired,” she explained, “African Americans were suffering more than most from the combined scourge of Reaganomics, AIDS and the crack epidemic.”

Despite the very real harm caused by the transmission of HIV and use of crack cocaine, the claim that black Americans financially regressed during the presidency of Ronald Reagan is at odds with reality. Like President Obama, Reagan entered office under the specter of a major recession that ended early in his 8-year tenure (1981-1989). In the ensuing recovery, which began in 1982 and lasted through Reagan’s second term, the Census Bureau records that the inflation-adjusted median cash income of black households rose by 12% or $3,306.

For a point of comparison, during the four years of available data on the most recent economic recovery (2010-2013), the median income of black households fell by 2.2% or $793:

median_cash_income_growth_black_householdsIt is important to note that these facts don’t prove that the economic policies of Reagan were better for black people than those of Obama, because it is impossible to objectively separate the impacts of a president’s policies from numerous other factors that affect the incomes of individual Americans. Also, the Census Bureau’s measure of income is incomplete because it excludes the value of noncash income, such as employee fringe benefits, food stamps, and Medicare.

Nevertheless, the common claim that black Americans economically suffered during Reagan’s presidency is belied by the data above and other Census data showing that every income quintile of black families experienced real cash income growth in this era. Again, for comparison, the increase for each of these quintiles was significantly higher than in the current recovery:

cash_income_growth_black_family_quintilesIn his column, Milloy described Wilson’s King Hedley II as depicting “a black man’s furious struggle for respect as well as his desperate quest for the means to care for the ones he loves.” Milloy also wrote that misunderstandings can have “fatal” consequences—yet he propagated a misunderstanding that could drive African Americans and other Americans to oppose economic policies that may help us care for the ones we love. Allison suffered under the same misunderstanding, which she says played a role in deciding to not report a rape.

These poignant examples highlight the potential harm that can flow from misinformation. Black Americans broadly prospered during Reagan’s presidency, and claims to the contrary, like many falsehoods in the realm of public policy, can inflict tangible damage on individuals and society.

  • May 16, 2015 at 12:33 AM

    This doesn’t surprise me, although it doesn’t fit liberal orthodoxy. Bill Moyers, reportedly commenting on the election of Ronald Reagan, said his election “proved” America was still a deeply racist nation. A fundamental tenant of leftist orthodoxy seems to be that the only reason anyone would vote Republican is due to racism.

  • August 26, 2016 at 9:44 PM

    We prospered financially during Reagan but he also destroyed us because the War on Drugs wasn’t nothing but the cover up to the flood of guns and the worse narcotic in American History which is crack. So you right it was plenty of jobs for blacks because the crack game made it possible……the more crack sold the more money generated in the neighborhoods, the more people took advantage of the situation and established businesses and employment as well as crackheads that had money coming in to support their habits continuously without interruption. That was the real Reagan era…..the founding father of the Mass Drug Dealing and endless promotion of the gangbanging culture

    • August 26, 2016 at 10:12 PM

      Nonsense. Teen drug use halved under Reagan. Also, despite the crack epidemic, the murder rate stayed steady during his presidency.

      To blame economic growth on crack cocaine is beyond absurd.

  • January 29, 2017 at 7:31 AM

    This essay is wildly misleading.. Reagan’s assault on civil rights leaders and others is well documented. And these numbers and graphs are ludicrous. Reagan was no friend to Black people. And the misinformation campaign is desperate and dishonest. This is conservative revisionism in its purest form.

    • December 19, 2019 at 9:43 PM

      The data in this article comes straight from the U.S. Census Bureau, and your baseless dismissal of it shows that you are unwilling to accept facts that don’t align with your political views.


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