Dr King’s Dream — A reality Check Fifty Years Later

–January 20, 2013

Fifty years after Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech; the country is celebrating the iconic leader’s birthday and the second inauguration of its first Black President.

As fortunate as we are to witness the momentous developments that are unfolding, it is important to stay focused on the fact that for the vast majority of African-Americans, the dream has yet to materialize.  In fact, it could be argued that economic progress has not just stalled; it has reversed over the last five years.  The great recession was an enormous setback to the progress of African-Americans.

For population whose primary wealth ownership is embodied in home equity, the housing bubble that precipitated the financial meltdown had particularly harsh consequences.

In July of 2012, the Pew Research Center released its study of wealth distribution between 2005 (the heyday of the housing bubble) and 2009 (the end of the Great Recession).  The study found that wealth among whites (i.e. the difference between the total value of their assets and the total amount of outstanding debt) declined by 16% to $113,149. However, Black wealth declined by 53% to $5677, and wealth among Latinos declined by a whopping 66% to $6325.

Blacks and Latinos find themselves at the extreme and rear end of an economy that is improving at a snail’s pace.

For example, in December of 2012, the overall unemployment rate remained constant at 7.8%, but Black unemployment increased from 13.2% to 14.0%. More alarming, unemployment among Black teenagers increased from 39.3% to 40.5%.

Although Blacks comprise only 11.9% of the U.S. workforce, they make up 20.2% of all unemployed workers.

As we prepare to celebrate the birthday of Dr. King and the 50th anniversary of his famous speech, keep in mind that for a vast segment of the American population, a better quality of life remains very much a dream rather than a reality.

The situation is more complicated because Congress is hopelessly embroiled in budget debates about raising the debt ceiling.  No matter what the outcome of the debates, one fact is predictable — even fewer resources will be available to address a problem of Black unemployment. To date, that issue has ranked very low on Washington’s list of political priorities.

Improvements in the labor market over the last year have filtered down to blacks very slowly.  Last year this time, unemployment among blacks was 15.2%, today it is 14%.  In comparison, white unemployment is currently 6.9%.

The persistently high rate of Black unemployment is caused by many factors.  These include Black-white disparities in the following areas: educational achievement; the residential pattern of the Black population vis-à-vis employment opportunities, incarceration rates among men, women and youths; health and wellness conditions; business development; industry and occupational employment characteristics.  Many of these factors are attributable to the country’s historical legacy of discrimination; a legacy that Dr. King fought against so ardently.

The Nature of these challenges mean one thing is certain—GDP growth is not enough. The government urgently needs to establish a National Commission on Black Unemployment—just as it established a commission to rescue the auto industry. This Commission could elevate the problem to a national priority. Additionally, it could outline a comprehensive approach—one that looks beyond simplistic solutions like job-training strategies. If an intervention of this magnitude does not occur, we may still be dreaming, fifty years from now.