“When you see something that’s not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something.”

“When you see something that’s not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something.” Barack Obama and John Lewis discuss Martin Luther King Jr.’s enduring legacy to history

The gap between black and white unemployment is roughly the same now as it was in 1963, southern schools are resegregating and the wealth gap is widening.

Median black household income remains stubbornly half that of white households.

Capitalism, Dr. King said in Chicago in 1967, was “built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor.” The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice, he continued, “cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”

By the long, hot summer of 1967, which saw riots in Newark, Cincinnati and Buffalo, and tanks rolling down the streets of Detroit, King had, in the midst of the cold war, moved on to questioning capitalism. “We must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society,” he said in August 1967. “There are 40 million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there 40 million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy … when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question: ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question: ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question: ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?’”

“Our country has chosen the easier way to work with King,” the late Vincent Harding, who wrote a draft of King’s Riverside speech, told me. “They are aware that something very powerful was connected to him and he was connected to it.”

The late leader didn’t just criticize racial segregation. He called for an end to economic injustice. By 

April 4 marks the 50th anniversary of the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

Just after 6 p.m. on April 4, 1968, King was fatally shot while standing on the balcony outside his second-story room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

American history rightly honors King as one of its most celebrated civil rights leaders. Growing up, I remember learning about his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. In school, my teachers always highlighted him as a peaceful, non-violent protester against segregation, and a preacher who promoted messages of love and justice for all.

He was all those things. But that’s only one part of King’s legacy.

King was actually very radical about his vision of change for America. He didn’t just criticize segregation — he recognized the need for deep, structural changes to our entire economic and political system.

King identified three evils plaguing western civilization in a speech at the National Conference on New Politics in 1967. The United States, King said, is suffering from “the sickness of racism, excessive materialism, and militarism” — a sickness that “has been lurking within our body politic from its very beginning.”

MLK and 50 Years of Civil Rights

“We have deluded ourselves into believing into believing the myth that capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice,” King observed. But “the fact is capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor — both black and white, both here and abroad.”

King foreshadowed that if we maintain our exploitive economic and political systems, then we’d get not only racial apartheid, but economic apartheid as well.

He was right. Nearly 51 years after that speech, we’re still heading in that direction.

recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies found that just three people — Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet — own more wealth than the bottom half of the country combined. “The Forbes 400 list altogether own $2.68 trillion in wealth, more than the GDP of Britain, the world’s fifth richest country,” the report notes.

On the other end of the spectrum, one in five Americans have zero or negative wealth. The proportion grows larger when we break it down by race, rising to 30 percent of black families and 27 percent of Latino families.

As much as we cite the vision that MLK laid out for America, decades later we’ve not moved in the right direction. Within the past year alone, we’ve seen GOP tax cuts siphon wealth from middle and working class Americans to the ultra-wealthy and big corporations.

And we’ve seen a proposed federal budget that increases military spending to a historic 61 percent of discretionary spending in 2019. Housing and community programs would receive a 35 percent cut, according to the National Priorities Project.

It’s all there: racism, materialism, and militarism.

King called for a “radical redistribution of political and economic power” in order to end those three evils. Now is the time for this necessary radical change. We must channel MLK’s revolutionary spirit into an effort to reshape America’s values to ensure justice for all — “both black and white, both here and abroad.”

MLK’s last 31 hours: the story of his final prophetic speech.

The Guardian: Martin Luther King remembered across US.

Gary Younge with an interesting look how much public (and media) opinion about MLK has changed over the past five decades. Martin Luther King: how a rebel leader was lost

Vox: How America has — and hasn’t — changed since Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, in 11 charts.  

Exactly 50 years after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., America is still far from his dream.

Across measures ranging from criminal justice issues to economic well-being, black Americans still lag far behind white Americans. In some cases, there has been progress since the civil rights era and King’s death. But the situation has actually gotten worse for many black people.

There are myriad reasons for this. Outright racism. Policies that don’t adequately address past and current systemic obstacles for black people, particularly segregation. Policies that make such problems worse — like restrictive covenantsredliningblockbusting, and steering. And a total lack of attention to key issues, such as the criminal justice system’s neglect of huge racial disparities in just about everything it does, from policing to incarceration.

A Black Lives Matter demonstration against the Sacramento Police Department after two officers shot and killed Stephon Clark in the city on March 23, 2018.
 Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Whatever the cause, the result is seen in the numbers below: From earnings to getting a college education to incarceration, black Americans generally do worse than their white peers. For all the hope that King professed, America is still a land of racial inequality.

1) Black Americans make much less money than their white peers

A chart comparing black and white wages.

It’s not just that black people generally make less money than their white counterparts; it’s that the wage gap between black and white workers has widened steadily since the late 1970s.

A recent study on race and economic mobility found that black men in particular see much less mobility than their white counterparts, even after controlling for hours worked, employment rates, family structure, and a host of other variables. That could help explain how black workers remain so far behind.

2) Black people are still unemployed at nearly twice the rates as white people

A chart comparing black and white unemployment rates.

How bad is the job market? The numbers suggest that can depend on your race. Historically, unemployment rates have been around twice as bad for black people as their white counterparts.

Racism likely plays a big role in that: Studies have found that when all else is held equal in job applications but the name of the applicant is changed to be stereotypically black as opposed to stereotypically white, the stereotypical white names “were 50 percent more likely to elicit positive responses from employers” — and some research suggests these kinds of disparities have gone unchanged since at least the late ’80s.

3) White family wealth is nearly seven times greater than black family wealth

A chart comparing black and white family wealth.

Given the numbers above, this statistic should be unsurprising: White families hold muchmore wealth than their black peers. As the Urban Institute noted, this is largely a result of the earnings gap — people accumulate less wealth over their lives if they’re making less money on a yearly basis.

4) Black people are more than twice as likely to live in poverty

A chart comparing poverty rates by race.

The good news is that black poverty rates have declined over the past few years. The bad news is there are still massive racial disparities in who remains poor.

5) Black kids are more likely to grow up in poor neighborhoods than they were decades ago

Alvin Chang/Vox

One of the key components to this story is neighborhoods. As Dylan Matthews wrote for Vox, studies have “found that federal subsidies designed to move poor families out of disadvantaged areas can substantially increase income for poor children when they grow up.”

But, largely due to the persistence of residential segregation, black kids are still much more likely to grow up in a neighborhood with medium or high levels of poverty than their white peers. And in fact, black (and white) kids are actually more likely to live in a high- or medium-poverty neighborhood than they were during the civil rights era — a sign that even as poverty has generally declined, geographic concentrations of poverty have gone up.

6) School segregation remains fairly common

One of the great victories of the civil rights era was the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that deemed racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Yet, as Alvin Chang wrote for Vox, racial segregation in schools has remained stubbornly high — in large part because residential segregation has kept black kids stranded in neighborhoods with mostly black schools and white kids in neighborhoods with mostly white schools.

And while local policy reforms could alleviate the problem, white parents in particular are often resistant to ideas that can spur more integration — fearing that it will make their schools worse.

7) Black-white high school completion gaps have narrowed

A chart of high school graduation rates by race.

Here’s some good news: The gap between black and white completion rates of high school has nearly closed since the 1960s. White Americans are still a little more likely to graduate, but the gap is nowhere as big as it was in the past.

8) The college education gap, however, remains huge

A chart of college graduation rates by race.

While black and white college graduation rates have increased over the years, white people are still more than 50 percent more likely to obtain a college degree.

9) Black voter turnout has generally trended up for the past couple of decades

A chart of voting population turnout rates by race.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a tremendous victory for the civil rights movement, notably increasing voter registration and turnout in the South in the years following its passage. In the decades since, black voter turnout has fluctuated from presidential election to presidential election, but it’s generally trended up — and when President Barack Obama was on the ballot, black voter turnout even surpassed white voter turnout.

That doesn’t mean everything is perfect; a 2013 Supreme Court decision weakened the Voting Rights Act, and in the years since, states have more aggressively tried to restrict access to the voting booth in ways that could disproportionately hurt black voters, from strict voter ID laws to cuts in early voting.

10) Incarceration rates have grown a lot — and black people have suffered the most as a result

A chart of incarceration rates by race.

Responding to waves of crime in the 1960s through the early 1990s, lawmakers around the country passed laws that increased prison sentences and pushed for more incarceration to combat crime. Studies suggest this had only a small effect on crime rates. But it had an enormous effect on black people — who are disproportionately likely to be locked up.

A 2015 review of the research by the Sentencing Project concluded that only 61 to 80 percent of the disparity could be explained by higher crime rates in black communities — meaning as much as 39 percent is attributable to other factors, including, potentially, racial bias or past criminal records influencing a prison sentence.

The result was documented in a 2015 New York Times analysis, which found that there are, in effect, “1.5 million missing black men” in America who could be fathers or workers in their communities but instead are behind bars.

11) Black people are more likely to be shot and killed by police than their white counterparts

A chart of police shooting rates by race.

There’s no good historical data on this, but we do know that, as it stands today, black people are much more likely to be shot and killed by the police than white people. Studies have suggested that socioeconomic factors and crime rates don’t fully explain the gap — and that racial bias may be a factor, based on research that shows that police officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations.

These disparities are one of the issues at the front and center for modern civil rights movements like Black Lives Matter. King, for his part, would have likely appreciated the continuation of these movements: As he said during his historic “I Have a Dream” speech, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”

One thought

  1. Not going to lie here, a good well-rounded article complete with stats to back up the facts! Police brutality is still pretty controversial but kudos to you for taking a professional look at it!! good job!! I’ve only recently started blogging so Its nice to see brilliant posts such as this one!


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