I always feel inspired and elated, but also challenged and chagrined, at some of the celebrations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. There are those, too many folks, who want to sanitize Dr. King and turn him into a dreamer. Too many only quote the part of his “I have a dream” speech that talks about character content and skin color. Too few remember that in the same speech he said, “We have come to the nation’s capital to cash a check, and the check has been marked insufficient funds.” Dr. King was an economic populist, an anti-war activist, as well as a classically trained theologian. Too many put emphasis on the latter, without acknowledging the former.
That’s why each year, I am excited to receive the State of the Dream report from United for a Fair Economy. This organization does great work in talking about the wealth gap, and their annual foray into exploring the dream has looked at joblessness, homelessness, and austerity. Last year their report shared facts on the relative pay that people of color earn in the public and the private sector and concluded that austerity programs that cut government jobs disproportionately affect people of color.
This year’s report focuses on the Emerging Majority, and concludes that unless policy shifts are made, the wealth gap will grow even wider than it is today. Additionally, they project that by 2042, just 30 years from now when people of color are a majority in our society, nearly 5 percent of the African American population and 2 percent of the Latino population will be in prison if current incarceration trends continue. The report’s set of policy recommendation’s includes a recommendation to end the war on drugs. Indeed, more than half of those currently incarcerated are casualties of the drug war, some with very minor offenses, and others with conditions that warrant drug treatment, not incarceration.
“Economic inequality between whites and people of color will persist unless bold and intentional steps aer taken to make meaningful progress towards racial equity, to sever the connection between race and poverty, and ultimately to eliminate the racial economic divide altogether,” the report says in its Executive Summary. But such bold words are belied by the growing gap, increasing poverty, the unemployment rate differential, and continuing barriers to educational access in communities of color and among those who are low income. While our international competitors are investing in education, we are simply divesting. It is almost as if we have made a decision to devolve into a developing country.
What would Dr. King say about all this? I think he’d be outside with the folks from Occupy Wall Street, and I think he’d be directing them to a 21st century version of the Poor People’s Campaign. I think he’d be standing outside some of the banks, asking why they deserve the bailouts that ordinary people can’t get. Just as he occupied a housing project in Chicago, I bet he’d camp out with a family experiencing foreclosure. I know he’d be challenging us all.
There have been significant changes since Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, and the signs don’t say white or colored any more. The signs don’t have to say it – in some instances outcomes do. In other words, there are no signs on dollars that say white or colored, but African American people have pennies to the dollars of wealth that whites hold. There are no signs that say white or colored on executive employment, but you can count the African American CEOs in Fortune five hundred companies on one, or on a good day, maybe two hands. The signs don’t say segregation, but too many still experience it, and while few in polite company use racist expletives to describe people of African descent in this country, when a talk show host and a Congressman have the utter temerity to describe the First Lady’s body in disparaging terms, it takes me back two centuries, to echoes of the Hottentot Venus, Sarah Bartjee.
The dream is certainly a work in progress, but the dream won’t work unless we do. We cannot afford to be smug, glib, or complacent. The UFE report suggests that if we don’t act now, it will get worse later.