By Terri Lee Freeman
April 4, 1968 was a dark day in our nation’s history. On that date we lost the hope of many. For some, it simply solidified what they believed to be true -- that hate and evil win once again. And, still for others the message was sent that even with civil rights gains, race relations in the United States of America had a long way to go.
Today, in 2016, it is clear that that last statement remains true, race relations in the United States of America still have a long way to go. The difference is that we are no longer a nation of black and white, but a diverse mix of race and ethnicity. Anytime the issue of race is raised publicly we get anxious. We just don’t want to talk about it. As much as we like to pretend that we are a “color-blind” society, we see it and feel it every day. We recognize difference, but we’ve not truly learned yet how to accept difference for what it really is…different, not right or wrong, but simply different.
Prior to April 4, Dr. King began to write not solely about the civil rights inequities facing racial minorities, but the economic inequities that created a playing field that was not level for far too many Americans and other citizens of the world. At this point in his calling he was looking at race, but began to emphasize the limited access to opportunity afforded poor people. (Most of whom happened to be Blacks.) While he celebrated the legal successes during the early ‘60s, he understood the magnitude of the economic barriers and the impact they would have on a person’s ability to thrive in this nation. He also understood that poverty was no respecter of race or ethnicity. In 1968, 12.8% of U. S. citizens lived in poverty.
Fast forward to 2016. The early 21st century has demonstrated the immense differences that exist within our country. Political campaigns during the start of this century have illuminated a very polarized society. While we were united as a country after the horror of September 11, our response to those events heaped pain upon pain, and was not a response of diplomacy or nonviolence. The rise of extremism has seemed to continue and escalate with every passing year. This current presidential election cycle has presented rhetoric that separates us into a “we-they” society at best. But worst yet is that in 2014 close to 15% of U.S. citizens were living in poverty.
I don’t know for certain, but I feel confident that Dr. King would have expected significant progress over these 48 years. In his 1967 speech, “Where do we go from here?,” he talked about the gains that had taken place in the South, but he talked about the policies and practices that continued to plague Blacks when it came to housing and economic opportunity. He talked about access to living wage jobs and minority-owned businesses getting a fair share of business contracts. If this sounds familiar, I contend that his disappointment with the lack of progress in areas of economic development for too many Americans, would have him asking us “what have we been doing?”
He’d be disappointed to know that of the nearly 15% poverty rate, African Americans are twice as likely to be poor (26.2%) than white Americans (10.1%). While Hispanics (23.6%) and people with disabilities (28.5%) too are more than twice as likely to live in poverty. He would be proud of the progress minorities and women have made in corporate America, but would not be impressed by the Fortune 500 company stats that have only 22 Fortune 500 companies led by women, nine by Hispanics and five by African Americans.
Forty-eight years after his death, and nearly 62 years following Brown v. Board of Education, Economic Policy Institute research associate Richard Rothstein said, “Black children are more racially and socioeconomically isolated today than at any time” since data became available in 1970. We’ve got some work to do to combat these very large issues that keep a very large number of American citizens locked out of opportunity.
It is my hope that we will be diligent in addressing these issues. Ultimately we are all connected, but the chain is only as strong as its weakest link.