Conservatives today would have you believe the civil rights movement of the 1960s was so successful that systemic racism is a problem of the past. Every February, white Republicans observe Black History Month by twisting famous lines from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech to serve their own agendas. The Constitution is “colorblind,” they claim, and if this flies in the face of Black and Brown people and their lived experience, then they must be playing the victim for ideological reasons. Gov. Ron DeSantis, a top GOP presidential contender, is apparently so sure about this that he banned lessons on systemic racism in Florida’s public schools, lest children learn about Black history and disagree with him.
Some on the right are willing to say the quiet part of this argument out loud: If racial inequality persists between white people and Black or Native American communities, for example, then there must be a problem with Black people and Native Americans. According to this distorted view, the playing field was equalized decades ago by reforms that ended legal segregation and Jim Crow (or magically by King’s speech in 1963), so why don’t Black people just pull themselves up by the bootstraps? If this smells like racism, that’s because it is, and anti-poverty advocates have the data to prove it.
A new report backed by top civil rights leaders compares racial inequities today with statistics from 1963, when King delivered his famous speech as hundreds of thousands marched on Washington to demand civil and economic equality. The 60th anniversary of the March on Washington will be celebrated on August 28, but advocates say the hard numbers reveal that King’s dream has yet to be realized for millions of people.
While there is notable improvement in some areas, including Black educational achievement, disparities between Black and white Americans persist in employment, wages, health care, voting rights, sentencing and incarceration, housing and the building of intergenerational wealth. Jennifer Jones Austin, executive director of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (FPWA), a century-old group with deep ties to the civil rights movement, said racial inequity is still recorded across “nearly all measures of wellbeing” today.
“Today, millions of Americans remain disenfranchised and denied access to the most basic freedoms taken for granted by others — simply because of their race,” Jones Austin said on Wednesday. “Black Americans earn 20 percent less than their white counterparts, even with identical college degrees. This racial wealth gap has long-term detrimental impacts on families: One in three Black children live in poverty, compared to less than 1 in 10 white children.”
On the surface, many of the policies and legal structures that maintain inequality have little do with the “anti-woke” culture wars Republicans obsess over, especially now that the likes of DeSantis and Donald Trump have weaponized white backlash to the uprising against systemic racism and police violence that swelled in 2020. The movement for Black lives harkens back to the 1960s, when images of police brutality in the Deep South fueled civil rights protests, and white conservatives responded to calls for desegregation with racist frenzy and banter about “state’s rights.” The painting of today’s Black and intersectional activists as “anti-American” — and the banning of their ideas and identities in the classroom — comes right out of an old right-wing playbook, creating a convenient distraction from longstanding pillars of white supremacy.
A prime example? Jobs and the minimum wage, an issue as salient today as it was when Black workers marched in 1963 to demand jobs with dignity and fair pay. Adjusted for inflation, today’s federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour has less earning power than the $1.25 minimum in 1963; in fact, the minimum wage is worth less today than any time since 1956 thanks to congressional inaction by both Democrats and Republicans.
Employment discrimination and underfunded K-12 schools help explain why Black workers tend to be concentrated in lower-wage industries, disproportionately exposing Black families to the rock-bottom federal wage floor maintained by Congress and red state legislatures. Indeed, Black sanitation workers are still organizing for better wages and working conditions decades after the Memphis sanitation strike of 1968. King was assassinated shortly after rallying with the striking workers.
Even as Black people earn college degrees at significantly higher rates today, on average, they continue to face higher unemployment and lower wages than their white counterparts across all ages and educational levels, according to the report. The average Black college graduate owes $25,000 more in student loan debt than their average white counterpart due to lower levels of pay for the same work, which exacerbates the wealth gap.
This wealth gap between white and non-white workers remains stubbornly wide as a result, even as wage parity improved somewhat since 1963. The median annual income among white women with college degrees is 19 percent higher than Black women with college degrees. On average, Black and Brown women earn $0.65 and $0.55 for every $1.00 earned by white men, respectively. Today, Black and Latino men are concentrated in low-wage jobs more than any other group.
Then there is racist policing and the U.S. system of mass incarceration, a nexus of discrimination and institutional violence that many activists remain committed to abolishing three years after the 2020 uprisings. This system has been upheld by both Republicans as well as Democrats. In most major cities, Democratic leaders ignore widespread calls to divest from police departments and local jails and invest instead in schools, parks, health care and social services to build safety in communities suffering from divestment and targeted law enforcement. As a result, Black and Latino men are still disproportionately incarcerated for drugs, and Black men without high school diplomas are three times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts, according to the report.
“For incarceration rates, the disparity is yet more severe: one of three Black boys born today can expect to be sentenced to prison in their lifetime, versus one out of 17 for their white peers,” Jones Austin said. “We need more aggressive policy change.”
Race and identity may be flashpoints in today’s partisan politics, but the policies that shape racial disparities were supported by leaders in both parties. From decades of attacks on organized labor and neoliberal trade deals that offshored jobs in the 1990s and 2000s, to the disastrous “war on drugs” and racist sentencing laws that filled prisons with Black and Brown people, both Democrats and Republicans have supported and upheld the building blocks of systemic racism.
For the avid Truthout reader, the data in the FPWA report may not come as much of a surprise. Perhaps you can see your hometown, your family or even yourself in the numbers. But the report may come in handy next month, when politicians across the political spectrum will observe the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington by lining up to tell us their version of what Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he looked out at that unprecedented crowd and said, “I have a dream.”
“As we reflect on the dreams set forth by my dad at the March on Washington 60 years ago, we see they have yet to be realized,” said Martin Luther King III, in a statement. “This data reveals that our work is not over.”