State of blacks in Chattanooga: 'Inequality is the new normal,' professor says

Ken Chilton
Ken Chilton
photo Ken Chilton

Ken Chilton is used to uncovering startling statistics, but even he was surprised by some of what he found in assessing the state of blacks in Chattanooga.

During an interview, the former head of the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies posed this question:

What percentage of students at Brainerd High and Howard School were deemed college ready last school year according to ACT scores? The statewide average of college-ready students was 19 percent, he said.

For Brainerd and Howard, both predominantly black high schools, the percentage was zero, he said.

No student from either school passed all four parts of the ACT: English, math, reading and science.

More than 20 percent of East Hamilton High School students were college ready, as judged by ACT scores, and 41 percent were college ready at Signal Mountain High School.

"It looks like educational apartheid," said Chilton, an associate professor at Tennessee State University, in an interview before delivering a presentation titled "State of Black Chattanooga."

Chilton's address, given Monday night, was the first in a weeklong series of activities hosted by the Unity Group in honor of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis.

People have always known that racial disparities exist. What Chilton's data does is provide empowerment for dialogue, said the Rev. Charlotte Williams, pastor of Eastdale Village United Methodist Church and co-chairperson of the 45th annual King celebration.

It provides information to use in presentations to lawmakers when demanding public policies that bring resources to inner-city communities, she said.

Among Chilton's other findings, gleaned from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Pew Research Center:

* Blacks nationwide lost more wealth in the great recession than whites and are recovering more slowly, a trend that is reflected in Chattanooga. From 2010 to 2013, the median wealth of white households increased by 2.4 percent, to $141,900. Meanwhile, the median wealth of black households fell more than 33 percent, to $11,000. As a result, the wealth among white households was 13 times the median wealth of black households in 2013, compared with eight times the wealth in 2010.

* Blacks made up 17 percent of the state's population in 2013, but 44 percent of the prison population.

* Some 56 percent of black single mothers in Hamilton County live in poverty compared to 33 percent of white single mothers.

The city has huge disparities in wealth and income exacerbated by the 2008 economic recession, said Chilton.

"Inequality is the new normal," he said in remarks prepared for Monday's presentation.

In fact, he said there is hardly any black middle class in Chattanooga.

King week activities

* Today 6 p.m.: Screening of "Elementary Genocide From Primary to Penitentiary," Kingdom Center, 730 E. M.L. King Blvd. * Wednesday 6 p.m.: Community worship service at Eastdale Village United Methodist Church at 1401 Tunnel Blvd. * Thursday 6 p.m.: Community issues fair housing forum. East Lake Recreation Center at 3400 Dodds Ave. Moderator Paula Coleman. * Friday 9 a.m.: Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth Children's Right's Conference. Second Missionary Baptist Church, 2305 E. Third St. Presenter: Rosalyn Lavall-Rice, regional coordinator. * Saturday 9 a.m.: Annual Prayer Breakfast. Greater Tucker Missionary Baptist Church. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, emeritus, Trinity United Church of God in Chicago. Donation $25 * Sunday 4 p.m.: Dr. King's Birthday Party. Speaker the Rev. Jahmaul Williams of Atlanta. The Kingdom Center 730 E. M.L. King Blvd. * Monday 3 p.m.: Memorial Parade and March. From Miller Park to Olivet Baptist Church at 740 E. M.L. King Blvd. * Monday 5 p.m.: Main Program. Olivet Baptist Church. 740 E. M.L. King Blvd. Speaker: Dr. Umar Abdullah-Johnson of Philadelphia.

That, along with a lack of educational attainment, drives a lot of the problems with making gains, said Chilton.

For instance many people in Chattanooga's low-income neighborhoods lack a high school diploma or have only a high school diploma. Last year, just 6 in 10 students at Howard School and Brainerd High graduated, Chilton found.

Chattanooga's gang assessment, conducted in 2012 by the Ochs Center and the Center for Applied Research at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, found that the majority of residents in a cross-section of low-income areas had not progressed beyond a high school education and one-third or more of adults did not have a high school diploma.

Lagging achievement among low-income, minority students is a persistent problem here and elsewhere.

In 2011, 37 Hamilton County public schools failed to achieve federal standards, 29 of which fell short because they struggled to educate poor black students. Still, schools did show gains among low-income populations.

In 2012, achievement gaps narrowed in Hamilton County schools, but not fast enough, state officials said. While the county met a majority of its overall student achievement goals for 2012, the district met only three of its 16 goals for closing achievement gaps among student groups.

Data from 2012 also showed that a white or Asian student in Hamilton County did 21 percent better in high school math than a black, Hispanic or Native American.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith could not be reached for comment late Monday.

But Smith said in 2012 that administrators were working to reduce achievement gaps. He noted, however, that it is a moving target. If white students improve their scores, that could widen the achievement gap between them and black students. And if the two groups improve at the same pace, the gap could remain steady, he said.

"We want everyone to improve," Smith said.

Meanwhile, though Chattanooga has landed employers such as Volkswagen and Alstom, jobs there are not stepping stones to a better life for many people, Chilton said.

"Even though we're having success as a region with getting manufacturing jobs, a lot of people who need them aren't qualified for them," Chilton said. "The data bear that out."

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at or 757-6431.

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