Dr. King's Dream Failing? Where Racial Divides Remain

Fifty years after the March on Washington, where have racial gaps widened and where have they narrowed?

By Chris Hoenig

The location was fitting. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech echoed from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He disappointedly looked back at the lack of progress for Black Americans over the century since Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

"One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, 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 languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land."

He came for redemption. "America has given the Negro people a bad check," he said. He came with a belief in "the riches of freedom and the security of justice." He came to Washington for equality.

Fifty years later, data compiled by the Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends project show a dream in doubt, a lonely island only further out to sea, and freedom and justice still hard to find.

Widening Financial Gaps

"I have a dream that one day, on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons for former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."

When Dr. King shared his dream in 1963, the average white American family made more than $43,000. Black Americans made under $24,000, or about 55 percent of what whites did. Fast forward to today: Black households make a barely-larger share of white households (59 percent), but the actual dollar figures have widened from $19,000 to more than $27,000 ($67,175 vs. $39,760).

That's nearly 8,000 gallons of milk per year. More than 7,600 gallons of fuel oil to heat your home. Nearly 15,000 dozens of eggs.

The wealth of Black households is a statistic not even compiled until 1984. At that point, Black families had about 9 percent of the wealth of white households. This financial gap has not only widened in the past 30 years, but the wealth of Black households has shrunk from just over $7,000 to roughly $6,400. White families have seen their wealth increase from $82,000 to more than $91,000 in that same time period, or more than $14,000 for every $1,000 of wealth Black families have.

Growing Family Disparities

"I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of 'interposition' and 'nullification'—one day, right there in Alabama, little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers."

Fewer Americans are getting married today than 50 years ago, regardless of race. But as the percent of Black adults that are married has nearly halved, the gap between married whites and Blacks has nearly doubled. In 1960, 74 percent of white and 61 percent of Black adults were married, a difference of 13 percentage points. Now, that difference is 24 points—just 31 percent of Black adults are married, while 55 percent of whites are.

The family dynamic has changed, too. Today, 72 percent of Black mothers are unmarried when they give birth, compared with 38 percent in 1970. The percentage of white single mothers has increased over the past 50 years to just under 30 percent.

Other Economic Indicators Show Little Change

More indicators of wealth show that the same financial disparities still exist today, with no signs of measurable improvement for Black Americans.

In 1974, roughly 30 percent of Blacks lived below the poverty line in the United States. But even as household income has increased, so has the cost of living. Black Americans are still about three times more likely than whites to live in poverty—just as they were 40 years ago—with a poverty rate just below 28 percent.

Black homeowners were hit harder than any race or ethnicity when the housing bubble burst in 2007, often the victims of predatory lenders. As a result, the same percentage of Black Americans (44 percent) owns a house today as owned a home in 1976.

But even as fewer Blacks have owned homes in recent years, the gap in homeownership with white Americans has gone virtually unchanged over the past four decades. The homeownership rate for whites has held roughly around 70 percent since 1976, a steady gap of about 25 percentage points.

At the time of Dr. King's speech, America was at the tail end of the post-war boom for the economy and Baby Boomers were just starting to pump money into the U.S. economy. In the 50 years since, the country has gone through at least a half-dozen recessions and an oil crisis. The tech boom brought jobs to the economy, as did the housing boom … until both bubbles burst.

But through it all, through every high and low, Black Americans have faced an unemployment rate at least double that of whites. At its peak in 1983, nearly 20 percent of Blacks were out of work, compared to just 8.5 percent of whites. Today, the unemployment rate sits at 13.4 percent for Blacks and just 6.7 percent for whites.

Social Indicators Show Small Signs of Improvement

While many Black Americans continue to live on a "lonely island of poverty," Dr. King's dreams of ending discrimination show some promise in social issues.

The desegregation of high schools began about five years before Dr. King's speech, but didn't have much effect until decades later. In 1964, just 27 percent of Blacks had completed a high-school education—barely half that of the white population (51 percent). But 50 years later, that gap has almost disappeared: 86 percent of Blacks have high school diplomas, compared with 92 percent of whites.

College education continues to be a different situation, however. While the percentage of Black Americans with the minimum of a bachelor's degree has risen dramatically—from 4 percent in 1964 to 21 percent in 2012—the gap in the college graduation rate has more than doubled from 6 to 13 percentage points in that time (10 percent of whites over age 25 were college graduates in 1964; 34 percent of whites are today).

The gap in life expectancy for Blacks and whites has almost halved over the last five decades. A Black baby born on the day of Dr. King's speech could expect to live about 64 years, while a white baby could expect to live for about 71 years. Life expectancy at birth now is 78.9 years for whites and 75.1 years for Blacks.

A Complete Turnaround … for Now

"We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote."

Two years after Dr. King's speech, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It took more than 40 years, but in 2008, Blacks nearly matched white Americans in voter turnout. Four years later, for the first time, a larger percentage of Black voters cast ballots than whites: 67 percent of eligible Black voters turned out for the presidential election, while only 64 percent of eligible whites voted. It's a far cry from 1964, when more than 10 percentage points separated white and Black voters (71 percent of eligible whites vs. 59 percent of eligible Blacks).

But this year, the Supreme Court overturned a central provision of the Voting Rights Act. The youngest speaker during the March on Washington, 23-year-old John Lewis, returned to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for the 50th anniversary celebrations, and once again called for protections for Black voters.

"I gave a little blood on that bridge in Selma, Alabama, for the right to vote," he said, referring to the fractured skull he suffered when he was one of hundreds of protestors beaten by police on Bloody Sunday in 1965. "I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us."

"You cannot stand by. You cannot sit down. You got to stand up. Speak up. Speak out, and get in the way. Make some noise!"

Lewis is now a U.S. Congressman working to find a way to replace the stricken part of the Voting Rights Act. "The Voting Rights Act is needed now more than ever before," he told the Senate Judiciary Committee in July. "Who will take the charge? Who will lead the process for Congress to come together again and fight for the rights of minorities in South Carolina? In Texas? In South Dakota? In Michigan? In New York? In Alaska? In Arizona? Who will do what is right, what is just? Who will fulfill our constitutional responsibility?"

It's a question many Black Americans are continuing to ask. Who will fight for what's right? Who will fight for Dr. King's dream?


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