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Fifty years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation illegal in the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Americans still have a long way to go to achieve true racial equality, said Thomas Pettigrew, PhD, a research professor of social psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in a keynote address at the 2004 Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues biennial convention.

Black Americans still lag behind white Americans on almost every measure of prosperity, including employment, criminal justice, economic resources, health and education, said Pettigrew, who has studied racial discrimination and race relations for more than 50 years. The talk was filled with sobering statistics: In April 2004, black unemployment was 9.7 percent and white unemployment only 4.9 percent; in 2001, the average life expectancy for black men was 72 years, for white men it was 78; and in 1998, 38 percent of black children lived in poverty compared with 11 percent of white children.

In some areas, things have actually gotten worse in the past few decades: In 1975 the rate of imprisonment among blacks was twice that of whites, but now it is seven times greater, largely because of a sharp increase in arrests and incarceration for less serious drug crimes, Pettigrew said.

Moreover, considering each of these domains on its own actually understates the problem, Pettigrew explained. These factors interact with and exacerbate each other: When the head of a household is sent to prison, for example, that may drive a family deeper into poverty.

One of the keys to tackling these continuing disparities is encouraging true integration in our schools and neighborhoods, Pettigrew said.

But ironically, he added, 50 years after the Brown decision, Americans are still highly segregated in their housing and schools. He noted that by 1999, black children were more likely to celebrate Brown in mostly black classes than they had been at any time since the 1960s.

"We should recognize the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education," Pettigrew concluded, "but we cannot celebrate it when there is still so much left to achieve."

--L. WINERMAN