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Martin Luther King Jr., whom Americans honored this week, had the audacity to believe America would one day live up to its ideals. He foresaw an America where a person’s innate characteristics — such as race — neither constituted a barrier to advancement, nor gainsaid an individual’s civil rights or economic viability.
That dream, which MLK bemoaned, went unfulfilled during his lifetime, remains unfulfilled today.
Government leaders have named streets after King and created a federal holiday to commemorate his life. OK, fine. But if our public sector really wants a meaningful way to honor King, it should actually redress the harm done to generations of Black Americans, by eliminating the structural racism woven into the fabric of society. This responsibility falls more on the public sector now than ever, given the Supreme Court’s recent anti-affirmative action decision, which makes it difficult for individual institutions to deal directly with racial inequity.
Sadly, documenting the harm imposed on Black Americans by systemic racism is easy to do. Start with basic economics. According to a recent Harvard University study, Blacks in the prime earning ages of 25-45 have median incomes that range from 25% to 45% lower than their white counterparts, even after accounting for education and family structure.
Meanwhile both nationally and in Illinois, the unemployment rate for Blacks has historically been around twice as high as the unemployment rate for whites. Racial inequity in economic standing is perhaps best highlighted by Bureau of Labor Statistics data, which show the average net worth of a Black household in 2022 was $340,559 — or around four times less than the $1,322,528 average net worth of a white household.
‘Playing the race card’
Disparate racial outcomes aren’t confined to economics, but manifest in literally every other key factor comprising quality of life, from health care, housing and education, to interaction with the criminal justice system, where things are particularly bleak. Indeed, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Blacks account for 35% of all incarcerated men, but only 13% of the total male population. Black women, who similarly comprise 13% of all females, constitute an eye-opening 44% of incarcerated women.
Incredibly, some still believe “playing the race card” is wrong. According to their thinking, everyone has equal opportunities. Poor individual choices are what account for differentials in outcomes. But while individual choice certainly matters, the data make one thing clear: if you don’t “play the race card” you aren’t playing with a full deck. Since America’s inception, major policy structures have systemically discriminated against Blacks, denying them access to opportunity because of their race.
To state the obvious, it all started with the immoral practice of slavery, which subjected generations of Blacks to inhumane, forced servitude, to build wealth for whites. But it sure didn’t end there. After slavery was abolished in 1863, the feds created a “Freedom Bureau” to assist former slaves in gaining employment.
Unfortunately, that agency encouraged freed slaves to return to the south, and in many instances work for their former owners who weren’t exactly paying decent wages. Meanwhile, for 100 years after the Civil War ended, Jim Crow laws were enacted which, among other things, denied Blacks the right to vote, get a quality public education, work in certain jobs, or marry whites, while requiring private businesses and public facilities to segregate Black from white patrons.
Then beginning in the 1930s, federal housing policy officially red-lined Black communities across the country. This denied millions of Black Americans the opportunity to obtain reasonable mortgage terms, irrespective of their actual earnings or credit worthiness. Instead, Black homebuyers were forced into “contract sales” which did not allow them to build any equity for the payments they made, even though they were purchasing homes over a 15-20 year period. Worse, these contract sales permitted sellers to evict buyers and retake the property if even one payment was late.
The list of inequitable systemic polices singling out Blacks for disadvantage is long, and covers everything from education funding to restrictive zoning ordinances. If we really want to honor the legacy of MLK, we will come to grips with the reality of the racist harm our systems cause, and reinvest public dollars to level the playing field for Blacks.