What MLK Might Say Today Stop Bouncing Checks From The Bank Of Justice

Isaiah J. Poole

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. laid down this marker during his “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963:

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

Here we are, 48 years after that speech, and that check is still bouncing. And we’re having a national debate about racial and economic justice that is a bit like an argument with a check-cashing rip-off operation.

“Actually, we did honor this check back in 1964,” says a clerk, pointing to the passage of the Civil Rights Act. You appeal to a manager, bringing statements showing your balance hasn’t changed. “It’s your fault,” the manager says. “You didn’t read the fine print about how you were supposed to deposit the check.” You start to argue, but the manager cuts you off. “Whatever happened back then is not our responsibility. Even if we did bounce that check, there’s nothing we can do about it now. You should be out there demanding a paycheck, not asking that someone make your life better by giving you other people’s money.”

“That is not what this is about,” you snap, but the manager is ushering a burly guard toward you. “This bank is closing,” the manager says to you. In almost the same breath the manager turns to a Wall Street trader standing nearby, the sneer switching instantaneously to a smile. “I’ll be with you in a moment,” the manager says.

This weekend conservative leaders, and in particular the Republican presidential candidates, will try their best not to sound like storefront con men as they try in vain to link Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message to their own message of a “limited government” that limits its service to the interests of the 1 percent. King, of course, would be furious if he were alive today, demanding to know how they could in good conscience walk away from the continuing racial disparities that plague American society—disparities that are in many respects the consequences of a promise of racial justice and economic opportunity that remains unfulfilled, the debts unpaid because of that check from the bank of justice that keeps being returned with yet more stamps that say “insufficient funds.”

These disparities are chronicled in a report issued today by United for a Fair Economy entitled, “State of the Dream 2012: The Emerging Majority.” The “emerging majority” refers to projections that by the year 2042, African Americans, Latinos and other people of color will together form a majority of the United States’ population. And yet, the report says, African Americans as a whole will in many respects not be better off, and in some ways will be worse off, than they were in 1963.

And the causes will not be, as candidate Newt Gingrich suggests, because African Americans do not “demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” This is not the fruit of some “culture of dependency” that has come to be the kinder, gentler way of invoking the image of “lazy, shiftless Negroes,” as if people of color uniquely prefer the increasingly tenuous struggle of survival in a breaking safety net to the ability to get a good job with decent pay, or to get a loan and start a business. The report recaps a history of conservative policies that have thwarted the demands of African Americans—and for that matter, tens of millions of Americans of all races—for paychecks and for economic justice.

The policies include:

  • The chronic underfunding of education at all levels for black and Latino youth, the resegregation of primary- and secondary-school education, and the increasingly unaffordable rise in higher education costs.
  • The mass incarceration of black people as a consequence of the “war on drugs” as well as the laws and private-sector policies that close off economic opportunities for ex-offenders. “Though Blacks comprise only a little over 12 percent of the total population, they make up close
    to 40 percent of the prison population,” the report said.
  • The failure to address the roots of the persistent wealth gap between blacks and whites; and economic policies that first led to the offshoring of manufacturing jobs that helped millions of black people enter the middle class up through the 1970s and are now eliminating the public sector jobs that black people disproportionately depend on now to maintain their tenuous hold in the middle class.
  • Predatory lending and discriminatory credit policies in African-American and Latino neighborhoods that are at the root of the higher foreclosure and bankruptcy rates in these communities.

The consequences of these policies, as listed in the United for a Fair Economy report, amount to a national disgrace:

  • The median income of black families, which was 60 cents per dollar of white family median income in 1968, is now 57 cents per dollar of white income.
  • Black people are two-and-a-half times more likely than whites to fall below the poverty line. But only 5.5 percent of people in the top 20 percent of earners in the country—households earning more than $113,000 a year in 2010—are black.
  • Household wealth of black families, which includes the values of homes, investments and the like, in 2007 averaged only one-fifth of the wealth of white families. As a result of the Wall Street financial meltdown, while the median white family experienced a resulting 16 percent decline in its total wealth; the median black family lost 53 percent of its wealth.
  • Unemployment rates for black people in 2011 have averaged twice that of white unemployment (in December, black unemployment was 15.8 percent; the white unemployment rate was 7.5 percent). “This gap is not new,” the report reminds us. “Black unemployment has remained roughly double that of whites for as long as the data has been tracked.”
  • “Communities of color lag behind the White population across a wide variety of health indicators including infant mortality, life expectancy, and prevalence of chronic diseases such diabetes, obesity and heart conditions.”

“Whether people of color make up 5 percent or 75 percent of the population, ending racial economic inequity should be an urgent national priority based on a moral argument alone,” the report concludes. But the report adds that “ending racial economic inequality is also the best thing we can do for the country’s economy. Tolerating the continued economic marginalization of Blacks and Latinos will drag down the entire economy and shred the very social fabric of our

nation as people of color make up a larger and larger share of the population. If the United States is to maintain a robust and powerful economy in an increasingly globalized world, we must make sure that all Americans can fully participate in the wealth-building process.”

Addressing these disparities will require reversing a broad range of policies that conservatives have put in place, some in recent years, the report says. In the political sphere, they include, for example, the voter ID laws passed by Republicans legislatures in a number of states that will have a disproportionate impact on black and Latino voters, and laws in 48 states and the District of Columbia that strip some or all voting rights from people who have served prison time. And people of color have a stake in limiting the influence of money in politics, since a small, wealthy segment of the electorate that does not represent the racial and ethnic makeup of the country should not have an outsized influence over the nation’s politics.

The report also says that since “race still matters in America,” race should be a factor in public policy remedies to economic inequities. That means continued support for affirmative action in education and targeted job-creation programs. In addition, the report calls for aid to states to rehire public employees, undoing the disproportionate impact state and local government layoffs has had on black workers. Addressing the foreclosure crisis through such measures as “cramdowns”—writing down the principal of underwater mortgages to their actual current value, is critical to reverse the erosion of wealth among black families. Ending the war on drugs and racial disparities in law enforcement is also essential, as are ending policies that keep people who have served time from climbing back onto the economic ladder.

The presidency of Barack Obama seemed for a brief moment to open the possibility of a civil national conversation about the legacy of racism, its continuing effects and our shared responsibility to heal the wounds and move toward a more just nation in which opportunities are truly equal. The wave of tea-party conservatism that quickly followed shut down that conversation before it could start in earnest, just as a wave of conservatism worked to shut down the movement toward racial justice after King’s death in 1968. Competing to be the standard-bearer of these conservatives are Republican presidential candidates who believe that the gulf separating black people and white people is not their problem and is not a national priority. They deny being the beneficiaries of white privilege and ignore the still existing wreckage of racism. Their message to black America: Just get over it.

To them, it is heresy to say that America has not made good on the promise of racial equality and economic justice. But that check marked “insufficient funds” testifies to the truth. If King were alive today, he would acknowledge the five decades of work to make his dream a reality and the real differences those efforts have made, including the ability of America to elect an African American to the presidency. But he would also say that it is past time for America to make good on that check.

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