Fifty years after the March on Washington, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told the nation about his dream of racial justice, are we ready to sing, in the words of the old Negro spiritual he quoted, “free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we’re free at last?”
After all, Jim Crow segregation has been vanquished. The 1964 prediction — in capital letters, no less — by the publisher of New Hampshire’s largest newspaper that passage of the Civil Rights Act would “PRACTICALLY MEAN THE END OF THE TOURIST BUSINESS IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS, LAKES REGION AND BEACHES” proved to be unfounded.
Signs at New Hampshire’s grand hotels that once read “No Negroes, Jews, or Dogs” are long gone. “Whites only” signs are found only in museums. Not only that, civil rights protections in employment, housing and public accommodations have been extended to people with disabilities and, in many states, to lesbians and gays. We’ve clearly made historic progress.
But before we declare this a “post-racial” era and start singing “We Have Overcome,” let’s take a closer look. Empirical data show that black Americans still carry an undue burden of inequities in wealth and employment and in the criminal justice system.
The occasion for the 1963 march was the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery in the occupied South. “One hundred years later,” Dr. King said, “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.”
On the 150th anniversary of emancipation, the statistics are still pretty stark.
For example, as unemployment rates fluctuate, the black unemployment rate is consistently twice the white rate. That’s one of the factors behind a February 2013 Brandeis University report that the wealth gap between white and black families tripled from 1984 to 2009.
“Our analysis found little evidence to support common perceptions about what underlies the ability to build wealth, including the notion that personal attributes and behavioral choices are key pieces of the equation.”
“Instead,” wrote the authors from the Institute on Assets and Social Policy, “the evidence points to policy and the configuration of both opportunities and barriers in workplaces, schools, and communities that reinforce deeply entrenched racial dynamics in how wealth is accumulated and that continue to permeate the most important spheres of everyday life.”
For another way to look at the same numbers, take a look at the 2013 “State of the Dream” report from United for a Fair Economy. They say that in 2010, the most recent year for which they had statistics, “white families held on average more than six times as much net wealth as black families and nearly six times as much as Latino families.” Moreover, families of color were harder hit in the wealth department by the recent recession than their white counterparts.
Take another issue: incarceration rates. According to an analysis by The Sentencing Project, 38 percent of people in state or federal prisons in 2011 were black, 35 percent were white, and 2 percent were Hispanic. One in every 13 black males from age 30 to 34 was in prison in 2011, as were 1 in 36 Hispanic males, compared to 1 in 90 white males in the same age group.
Black males have a 32 percent chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives; Hispanic males have a 17 percent chance; white males have a 6 percent chance. The rate of black incarceration is so high, and the legal consequences for felons so severe, that scholars such as Michelle Alexander have labeled the phenomenon as “the new Jim Crow.”
We may, in fact, have risen from the “dark and desolate valley of segregation,” but we are still miles away from “the sunlit path of racial justice” described on that day in 1963.
So as we recall Dr. King’s soaring rhetoric five decades ago, let us renew our own commitment that we will never turn back until “justice roars down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24)
Arnie Alpert, American Friends Service Committee’s New Hampshire program coordinator, served as the communications coordinator for the grassroots campaign for New Hampshire to observe a state holiday honoring Dr. King’s birthday.