The Herald Bulletin

August 29, 2013

Editorial: 50 years later, economic inequality persists in U.S.


— While the words of Martin Luther King Jr., spoken at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., 50 years ago, still ring from the annals of history, the words of others from the March on Washington speak as eloquently of the economic injustice suffered by African-Americans.

"Yes, we want all public accommodations open to all citizens, but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them," labor leader A. Phillip Randolph, who first envisioned the March on Washington, told the crowd of 250,000 on the Mall.

And this was written by Bayard Rustin, an organizer of the 1963 march:

"The struggle began with the problem of buses and lunch counters and theaters — in a word, with the problem of dignity. But since the roots of discrimination are economic, and since, in the long run, the Negro, like everyone else, cannot achieve even dignity without a job — economic issues were bound to emerge, with far-reaching implications."

Even as our nation's first black president stood to address tens of thousands Wednesday on the 50-year anniversary of the march, by most measures, the economic gap between African Americans and whites remains at least as wide as it was 50 years ago:

— According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 27.4 percent of African Americans are poor, compared to 9.9 percent of their white brethren.

— In 2011, on average, blacks' income was 66 percent that of whites, up only incrementally from 55 percent in 1963.

— From 1963 through 2011, the black unemployment rate, on average, was 11.6 percent, twice that of white Americans.

Unequal access to buses and lunch counters and theaters that Rustin spoke of has been largely addressed. The greatest victory of Dr. King and his followers was the defeat of such overt social injustice.

But economic injustice persists. And it's more difficult to identify the causes and solutions. If Dr. King's battle against social wrongs was a traditional war that pitted forces of freedom against clearly defined Jim Crow laws, the battle for economic equality is guerrilla warfare, where the enemy and his tactics are much more elusive.

Some Americans, even today, would pin the blame for economic disparities on the black race. They would blame blacks themselves for not lifting themselves up by their bootstraps and bettering their conditions.

While laziness and lack of ambition certainly can be cited in some individual cases for those of all races who languish in poverty, the general cause has nothing to do with such personal weaknesses.

The cause must be traced to public policy that has favored the rich over the poor, thereby causing greater economic hardship for those who lack economic advantages. Blacks disproportionately populate the lower economic rungs and therefore have suffered disproportionately from such public policies.

An article this week in the Washington Post aptly characterized the shift in economic progress that has oppressed poor people of all races:

"Between 1947 and 1979, the wages of workers at all salary levels grew by roughly the same percentage. But between 1979 and 2007, incomes shifted drastically, with the top 5 percent of earners seeing annual salary increases more than three times the size of those in the middle ... Overall, 63 percent of total income growth went to the top 10 percent of households between 1979 and 2007."

The article goes on to point out that "economists often attribute the changing income distribution to the weakened state of unions, the rise of global labor competition, and the premium placed on bankers and others who facilitate global finance."

It's also noteworthy that the minimum wage scale has fallen significantly behind its August 1963 level. Back then, the federal minimum wage standard of $1.15 had, when translated to today's dollar value, $8.80 in buying power. The current federal and Indiana minimum wage is $7.25, meaning that Hoosiers and other Americans today earning the minimum have almost 20 percent less purchasing power than they did 50 years ago.

By some measure, African Americans have made great strides economically and educationally since 1963:

— The number of black families earning $100,000 or more annually has quintupled.

— The number of blacks with high school diplomas has tripled.

— Black college graduates have grown by a multiple of 10.

But the economic reality is that the overall economic condition of black Americans has changed little since 1963's March on Washington, and some studies indicate that black job applicants continue to face discrimination.

— Census figures show that blacks with some college education have a higher jobless rate (12.1 percent in 2012) than whites who have not finished high school (11.4 percent).

— A Princeton University researcher found that black job applicants without a criminal history get call backs for interviews at about the same rate as whites with felony convictions.

While many of our social/racial demons have been conquered, economically, our nation has made little progress in racial/economic equality since 1963.

That is the great challenge for this generation. And, in this regard, the words of Dr. King from August 1963 still ring with authority: "This is no time ... to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy."

In summary While many of our social/racial demons have been conquered, economically, our nation has made little progress in racial/economic equality since 1963.