Economic equality: King’s unfinished civil rights agenda
As we celebrate the 90th birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. this year, let’s make sure we honor him for more than his dream of a colorblind America.
While there is great wisdom in Proverbs 29:18: “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” King and other civil rights leaders, many of them clergymen or staunch Christians, also realized that people needed to have jobs and good housing.
These leaders, known and unsung, were more than dreamers, they were pragmatic men and women who connected economics to full equality.
Remember that the official name of the historic march at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in August 1963 was “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” This showed that King and the civil rights leaders of the 1950s and 1960s knew, like W.E.B. Dubois, Booker T. Washington and other Black leaders of the past, the importance of economic equality.
The civil rights movement achieved significant progress in ending segregation by law in the United States. Major gains have also been made in education. According to the National Urban League’s “State of Black America” report, 75 percent of Black adults had not completed high school 50 years ago, compared with 15 percent of Black adults today. There are now 3.5 times more Blacks aged 18-24 enrolled in college, and five times as many African-American adults who hold a college degree.
African Americans have also made significant gains in politics from local government to the 2008 election and 2012 re-election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first Black president. In the new 116th Congress, the Congressional Black Caucus swore in 55 members — its largest number in history. This year’s CBC surpasses its previous record of 49 House and Senate members in the 115th Congress.
In addition to progress in education and politics, Black American culture plays a major influential role in America and throughout the world.
Yet the struggle for economic equality remains an unfinished part of the civil rights agenda.
Obama noted the importance of economics when he urged thousands gathered to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in 2013 to become modern-day marchers for economic justice and equality.
Obama said economic justice is the “great unfinished business” of the March on Washington.
“The men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract idea,” Obama said. “They were there seeking jobs as well as justice. Not just the absence of oppression, but the presence of economic opportunity. For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal?”
Before his death, King had become increasingly outspoken on economic issues. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference formed the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. They planned a multiracial march on Washington, D.C., to call for an economics bill of rights for the poor while demonstrations took place around the country.
The Poor People’s Campaign fell shortly after King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, while helping to lead sanitation workers on strike.
While nondiscriminatory practices in the workplace and education have helped reduce racial income inequality, closing the racial wealth gap will require aggressive policy.
The racial wealth gap has barely budged in 150 years, said law professor Mehrsa Baradaran, author of “The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap” (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017) in an interview with North Carolina Public Radio.
“In 1865 when slaves are emancipated ... freedmen and freed Blacks had about 0.5 percent of the nation’s wealth ... Today that number has barely budged. It is about 1-2 percent. So any efforts at wealth accumulation for the Black community have been an utter failure ... There’s another economic story that once you have a racial wealth gap that is that wide, it continues to self-perpetuate without actually continuing input ... Wealth creates more wealth unto itself. And the lack of wealth, also, has this vicious cycle downwards,” said Baradaran.
“Blacks who have a college degree have two-thirds of the net worth of whites who never finished high school,” said economist Sandy Darity, director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. The findings of Darity and Baradaran are based on intergenerational wealth among whites and property ownership.
A change in public policy is needed to reduce the racial wealth gap.
“The idea that Black Americans can fix the wealth gap on their own is not only flawed, but also ignores the history of discriminatory policies that robbed Black families of their capacity to build wealth in the first place,” said Baradaran.
So what is the solution? Scholars such as Baradaran and Darity argue it lies beyond income and education. Policymakers must turn attention to increasing Black families’ wealth through reparation programs, eliminating barriers to home ownership and increasing access to capital.
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, (D-N.J.), offers the type of innovative solution that will be needed to close the racial wealth gap by proposing “Baby Bonds.”
The proposal, which Booker announced as a bill last fall, calls for the government to create “a trust account containing a thousand dollars for each infant. Each year, the Treasury would add as much as $2,000, depending on the child’s household income, so that by adulthood the children of the poorest families would have a nest egg of nearly $50,000. The money could be withdrawn only to buy a house or to pay for higher education or professional training. Booker estimated the cost of the proposal at $60 billion a year, and said that he planned to pay for it by, among other things, raising estate taxes back to their 2009 levels and then raising taxes on the largest inherited fortunes — those of more than $80 million dollars,” said Benjamin Wallace-Wells in the New Yorker.
To many Americans this will appear to be a radical idea, but it is the type of public policy solution needed to reduce inequality.
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