Forty years ago tonight, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tenn. On the eve of his death, King preached: “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
A new report, Forty Years Later: The Unrealized American Dream, by Dedrick Muhammad, my colleague at the Institute for Policy Studies, examines our progress toward King’s dream of racial equality, specifically between blacks and whites. Simply put, we’re not much closer to the promised land than we were at the time of King’s murder.
The inequalities of income and wealth that have polarized our nation are even more extreme when examined through the prism of race.
African-Americans have gained little ground in achieving income equality with whites. At the slow rate of progress over the past four decades, it will take 560 years to achieve equality.
In the important area of wealth and net worth, the lack of progress is most troubling.
The home ownership rate for African-Americans is 47 percent compared to 75 percent for Anglos. There remains a dramatic divide in median household wealth, with whites averaging $118,300 and blacks averaging $11,800. If we continue to close the gap at the same rate since 1983, when government agencies began to track net worth by race, it will take 600 years to attain black-white equality.
While we celebrate progress in access to education and educational achievement, we must confront our national failings in the area of economic opportunity. The extreme inequalities that have accelerated during the past three decades have thwarted the progress of millions of people of all races and stations and deferred the dream articulated by King. We urgently need an economy that expands wealth and opportunity for everyone, not just the wealthiest 10 percent of households.
On this 40th anniversary, let us pledge to address these extreme inequalities and their racial dimensions. We can start with the blueprint of the substantial investments in expanding economic opportunity that our nation made in the three decades after World War II, from 1945 to 1975.
Millions of Americans saw their economic lives transformed by debt-free college educations, government-backed expanded home ownership and small-business development assistance. Tragically, many people of color were excluded from these initiatives.
There are new opportunities to expand wealth. Hundreds of states and localities have been piloting asset-building strategies to boost savings and wealth. These need to be expanded so that millions see their prospects improve. We should ensure that the substantial “green” investments our nation must make to transform our energy systems lift up workers and communities that have been excluded from past economic booms.
A program to address the unrealized American dream will lift up the whole society and economy, increase productivity and open doors that have remained shut. It’s time to find our moral compass and return from our wanderings in the wilderness.
CREEPING TOWARD EQUALITY
HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION RATES
290 Approximate percent increase in African-American high school graduation rate since 1968.
2018 Year in which whites and African-Americans probably will attain equality in high school graduation rates.
COLLEGE GRADUATION RATES
400 Approximate percent increase for African-Americans since 1968.
2087 Year that the African-American rate is expected to equal that of white Americans.
Source: Institute for Policy Studies