The world has changed since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dream on the National Mall in 1963. But this year, during Black History Month, we should remember that King's messages remain as powerful — and as necessary — today.
Nearly 43 years after King's assassination, the racial economic divide in our country endures. And if the austerity agenda advocated by deficit hawks in Congress succeeds, the state of King's dream is sure to decline.
MLK once said, "I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word." The unarmed truth — or data in this case — is startling.
A new report by United for a Fair Economy demonstrates that, economically, blacks and Latinos are falling well behind whites. For each dollar of wealth whites hold, for example, blacks have 12 cents and Latinos just 10 cents.
To make matters worse, blacks and Latinos remain unemployed at Depression-era levels — 15.8 percent and 13 percent, respectively — while 8.5 percent of whites are jobless. With fewer assets to fall back on, blacks and Latinos are relying more heavily on unemployment insurance, Social Security and public assistance during periods of economic strife.
King voiced his support for such social programs and corrective economic policies in a 1965 speech, in which he praised "unemployment insurance, old age pensions, government relief for the destitute, and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival, but a tolerable life."
He also noted that "captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome." That resistance continues to this day in Congress, most visibly among Republican leaders. Contrary to GOP assertions that their economic agenda upholds King's vision, Republican opposition to providing support to struggling Americans in times of need would actually force impoverished blacks, Latinos, and others on low incomes even farther down the economic ladder.
The civil rights movement King inspired achieved important social policy victories but did nothing to change our economic order. A commanding portion of the tax breaks extended in December 2010 flow into the bank accounts of wealthy whites, who are nearly four times more likely than blacks and Latinos to earn more than $250,000 per year. Additionally, GOP efforts to weaken the estate tax threaten to carry historical inequalities and injustices into future generations.
Perhaps the most troubling attacks are those on government itself. Public sector employees serve essential functions in society and make a robust economy possible. The public sector has also offered greater opportunities for racial parity than the private sector.
Today, blacks are 30 percent more likely to hold public sector jobs and 70 percent more likely to work for the federal government than the general workforce. This can be attributed, in part, to the superior civil rights and service protections of the public sector, as well as the collective bargaining power of a more highly unionized public workforce.
Attacks on government will ultimately hurt all of us by eroding the services depended upon by most Americans. But they will have a particularly devastating impact on workers of color.
Our economic policies have not kept pace with social priorities to promote racial equity. Certainly, during economic downturns, there is a need for budget care and diligence. But an austerity agenda will further impede progress towards racial equality.
King once noted, "Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable."
The same notion applies to economic progress. Policy changes aren't automatic and racial equality isn't inevitable. Rules that tilt the economy in favor of wealthy and primarily white households will not change unless we demand better for our country.
When we pull together to forge a new and equitable path, change is possible. We must recognize that when our communities as a whole do better, we as individuals do better. And I believe that this nation can do better.
Wanjiku Mwangi is the Racial Wealth Divide Leader at United for a Fair Economy in Boston. She co-authored the report, State of the Dream 2011: Austerity for Whom? that's available at faireconomy.org/dream. This column was distributed through OtherWords.org, a project for the Institute of Policy Studies.