On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee while assisting striking sanitation workers. The U.S. is a very different place than it was in 1968.
Or is it?
I know that while some things have improved markedly for Black Americans in the past 50 years, today we are still fighting many of the same battles as Dr. King did in his day.
The 1960s were tumultuous years indeed. During the long, hot summers from 1965 to 1968, American cities saw approximately 150 race riots and other uprisings. The protests were a sign of profound citizen anger about a nation that was, according to the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, “moving toward two societies, one Black, one White—separate and unequal.”
Economically, that was certainly true. In 1968, just 10% of Whites lived below the poverty level, while nearly 34% of African Americans did. Likewise, just 2.6% of White job-seekers were unemployed, compared to 6.7% of Black job-seekers.
So, how far have Black people progressed since 1968? Have we gotten our fair share yet? Those questions have been on my mind a lot this month.
In some ways, we’ve barely budged as a people. Poverty is still too common in the U.S. In 1968, 25 million Americans or roughly 13% of the population lived below poverty level. In 2016, 43.1 million or more than 12.7 % still did.
Today’s Black poverty rate of 22% is almost three times that of Whites. Compared to the 1968 rate of 32 %, there’s not been a huge improvement.
Financial security, too, still differs dramatically by race. Black households earn $57.30 for every $100 in income earned by White families. And for every $100 in White family wealth, Black families hold just $5.04.
From Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, many modern social movements decry the same inequality Dr. King did.
Black Americans today are also more dependent on government aid than they were in 1968. Currently, almost 40% of African Americans are poor enough to qualify for welfare, housing assistance and other government programs that offer modest support to families living under the poverty line.
That’s higher than any other U.S. racial group. Just 21% of Latinos, 18% Asian Americans and 17% of Whites are on welfare.
There are, of course, positive trends. Today, far more African Americans graduate from college—38%—than they did 50 years ago.
Our incomes are also way up. Black adults experienced a more significant income increase from 1980 to 2016—from $28,667 to $39,490—than any other U.S. demographic group. This, in part, is why there’s now a significant Black middle class. Legally, African Americans may live in any community they want—and from Beverly Hills to the Upper East Side, they can and do.
But why aren’t those gains deeper and more widespread?
Some prominent thinkers, including “The New Jim Crow” author Michelle Alexander, put the onus on institutional racism. Alexander, for her part, has famously said that racial profiling and the mass incarceration of African Americans are just modern-day forms of the legal, institutionalized racism that once ruled across the American South.
More conservative thinkers may hold Black people solely accountable for their problems. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson is in this “personal responsibility” camp, along with Thomas Sowell and Larry Elder.
Depending on who you ask, then, Black people aren’t much better off than in 1968 because either there’s not enough government help or there’s way too much.
I don’t have to wonder what Dr. King would recommend. He believed in institutional racism.
In 1968, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council sought to tackle inequality with an economic Bill of Rights. This was not a legislative proposal, per se, but a moral vision of a just America where all citizens had educational opportunities, a home, “access to land,” “a meaningful job at a living wage” and “a secure and adequate income.”
To achieve that, King wrote, the U.S. government should create an initiative to “abolish unemployment,” by developing incentives to increase the number of jobs for Black Americans. He also recommended “another program to supplement the income of those whose earnings are below the poverty level.”
Those ideas were revolutionary in 1968. Today, they seem prescient. King’s notion that all citizens need a living wage portends the universal basic income concept now gaining traction worldwide.
King’s rhetoric and ideology are also obvious influences on Sen. Bernie Sanders, who today and in the 2016 presidential primaries advocated equality for all people, economic incentives for working families, improved schools, greater access to higher education and for anti-poverty initiatives.
Progress has been made, just not as much as many of us would like.
Sharon Austin is professor of Political Science and Director of the African American Studies Program at the University of Florida.
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