Skip to content Skip to footer

Déjà vu All Over Again: Racism, Poverty and Militarism 50 Years Later

What would Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. think of the changes in the US over the past five decades?

What would Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. think of the changes in the US over the past five decades?

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson recently declared that poverty is mostly a state of mind. The Congressional Budget Office also noted recently that the American Health Care Act of 2017 would leave more Americans uninsured and cut critical programs to the poor.

Fifty years since the publication of possibly his most prophetic and least celebrated book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, King highlighted the merits and challenges of Black Power, outlined the history of racism, advocated for a guaranteed income and declared he was a Democratic Socialist.

In the June 1967 book, King implored the nation to address “the evils of racism, poverty, and militarism.” Fifty years later, these evils still exist.

Since 1967, Jim and Jane Crow de jure segregation is illegal and poverty rates have decreased, but the nation continues to spend billions on the military. Last year, the United States spent $596 billion on the military. President Donald Trump would like to increase the budget by $56 billion.

Yes, the civil rights movement eliminated legalized racism and that in theory provided equal opportunity for African Americans and all other marginalized groups. Since 1967, there is an increase in the number of Black elected officials and the Black median income.

In 1967, Edward William Brooke, III (R-Massachusetts) was the only Black senator, while there were five Black congressional members in the House of Representatives. In 2017, there are three Black senators and 49 black congresspersons.

In 1967, the average Black family income was $24,700. In 2014 it increased to $43,300. While the number of Black elected officials and average median income have increased, only 10 African Americans have been elected to the post of senator in the history of the nation, and the Black median income still lags behind whites.

The cause for both is institutional racism.

It is difficult for an African American to win a Senate seat in states with an overwhelmingly large and conservative white population. Racially-based redistricting also makes that impossible to elect a Black representative. Historically, Blacks continue to make less money than whites for the same job.

Civil rights legislation, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Great Society Programs and the Higher Education Act 1965 helped to decrease Black unemployment. But as King stated, “When it comes to bad things,” African Americans receive twice as much as whites.

For example, the Black poverty rate of 24 percent is 2.5 times the white poverty rate of 9 percent. However, in 2015, there were 17.5 million poor whites and 9.5 million poor Blacks.

During the last 50 years, the Republican Party has concentrated on the Black poverty rate rather the total number of poor people: 27 million. The racialization of poverty is used to demonize and disproportionately incarcerate African Americans and convince most whites that poverty is not an “American problem.”

Consequently, whites believe the Black poor receive more benefits. Yet, in reality, poor whites are a majority and receive more benefits.

What King recognized is poverty does not discriminate; poor and working poor people are a large segment of the population. They can become a powerful voice if poor and working poor whites — a large segment of the Republican Party — stop voting against their economic interests.

The Moral Monday Movement in North Carolina is an example of citizens organizing to increase the minimum wage and support policies that benefit working class people.

During the last 50 years the United States has fought wars both foreign and domestic: Cold War, Vietnam War, “war on crime,” “war on drugs,” Gulf War and “war on terror.”

In 2015, the US federal government budget was $3.8 trillion and 54 percent of the nation’s federal budget was spent on the military. The United States spends more money on the military than the next seven industrialized nations combined.

In Chaos or Community, King stated the federal government had diverted funds from the war on poverty to support the Vietnam War. This propensity has not changed.

In order to fund the “war on terror,” the Republican Party proposes to increase the military budget and decrease spending on social programs for the poor and working poor. In other words, a war on the poor.

The recent aggression towards Syria, implied threats against North Korea and also Russia do not bode well for demonstrating restraint on military spending.

Neither funding wars in foreign lands nor militarizing local police can create livable wage jobs with benefits, improve public education, infrastructure, or the quality of life for poor, working poor and working-class Americans.

It is time to stop asking the same questions about how to address poverty, the existence of racism or whether or not the government must spend more money on the military.

For the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s book, rather than concentrating on his dream, politicians and citizens need to wake up and address the ongoing nightmare connecting racism, poverty and militarism with new policies.

We need to focus an eye towards what is still unjust in the US and abroad. And decide just where we go from here.