Long March to the Dream

Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, better remembered as the day on which Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech to the largest crowd — over 200 000 – ever, at that point, assembled in the American capital.

President Abraham Lincoln had proclaimed the freedom America’s African slaves a century earlier on January 1, 1863. President Barack Obama will speak, as Dr. King did, from the steps of the gleaming white temple dedicated to Lincoln’s memory.

The power of Dr. King’s speech has made it easy to forget the march was as much about economic rights as the civil kind. Demands included a national minimum wage and a public works and training programme for the unemployed.

If remarks he made on Friday are a guide, Mr. Obama will mention this. He will point to himself as evidence of the strides America has made towards judging its people by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin, as Dr. King put it. But he will also aver that for blacks and other American minorities the economic kingdom has not been vouchsafed by the political one.

“We’ve made enormous strides,” he told a town hall meeting at Binghamton University. “We’ve also seen that the legacy of discrimination — slavery, Jim Crow — has meant that some of the institutional barriers for success for a lot of groups still exist. African American poverty in this country is still significantly higher than other groups.”

With unemployment stuck at over 12 per cent for African-Americans while the overall national rate has inched down to 7.4 per cent, white-black disparities do indeed remain striking. Here’s some data the Pew Research Center assembled in a report it released last week.

Median white income in constant 2012 dollars was $67 175 in 2011 versus $39 760 for blacks. The difference — $27 415 – is larger by a quarter than it was in 1967. 28 per cent of blacks live in poverty, compared to 10 per cent of whites.

Median net worth of white households in 2011 was $91 405; for black households, the figure was a fraction of that, $6 446, largely unchanged since 1984. In 2012, 73 per cent of white households but only 44 per cent of black ones owned their own homes.

Academically, both blacks and whites are much better off than they were in 1964, but there is still a gap.

Then, high school completion rates were 29 per cent and 51 per cent respectively. In 2012 they were 86 per cent and 92 per cent. In 1964, 4 per cent of blacks and 10 per cent of whites had completed some form of higher education. By 2012, this had risen to 21 per cent and 34 per cent.

Whites continue to live longer than blacks. African-Americans born in 1960 had an expected span of 63.6 years; in 2010, 75.1 years. Over the same period, white expectancy went from 75.1 to 78.9.

Economic wellbeing and marriage strongly correlate and while traditional marriages rates have been declining among all major US population groups, the slope is steeper for blacks than whites. 61 per cent of black adults were married in 1960. By 2011, that had fallen to 31 per cent. For whites the rate has gone from 74 per cent to 55 per cent.

In 2011, a black child was two and half times as likely to have an unmarried mother (72 per cent) as a white child (29 per cent). According to the US Census, the poverty rate for black households headed by a woman with no husband present but with children under 18 to care for is 45 per cent.

Not unconnected is the startling proportion of black men behind bars – 4 347 per 100 000 in 2010, up from 1 313 in 1960, compared with 678 and 262 for whites. Much of the increase is accounted for by draconian and racially skewed sentencing for drug offences.

Harvard’s William Julius Wilson, an African-American scholar Mr Obama listens to, recently told the Washington Post: “If you don’t have skill or a decent education in this global economy, your chances for mobility are limited. The problem is especially acute for black males and many turn to crime and end up in prison, which further marginalises them and decreases their employment opportunities.

“It would be great if the president raised such issues when he comments on the March on Washington.”

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