by Michael Wenger
For nearly two years I’ve been part of a group seeking to build a network among community-based organizations that have been engaged in fighting racism and promoting racial healing. To convey “the fierce urgency of now,” as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently put it in his “I Have A Dream” speech, we have adopted the slogan “Within Our Lifetime.” Now, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, looking back on what the past half-century has wrought may help us assess whether this slogan is a realistic possibility.
I was a college student when I attended the 1963 March. With several friends, I sat under a tree near the Lincoln Memorial listening to speeches by United Auto Workers head Walter Reuther; SNCC leader John Lewis, now a Member of Congress; Rabbi Joachim Prinz; and of course, Dr. King. We left the March re-invigorated by the size, passion and racially diverse composition of our fellow marchers.
Of course, many horrifying events were still to come – the Birmingham Church bombing the following month that killed four teenage girls attending Sunday school, the murder of three civil rights workers the following summer in Mississippi and the killing of Jimmy Lee Jackson that led to “Bloody Sunday” in 1965. But the March also precipitated landmark gains – the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
But has there been enough progress? Can racism truly be eliminated within our lifetime? There are many positive signs that it can be. Separate public facilities of course are now essentially a thing of the past, as are laws and restrictive covenants that limited where African Americans could live. The black middle class, tiny in the 1960s, has grown dramatically and blatant job discrimination is far less prevalent. There are African American CEOs of major corporations. Meanwhile, the number of black elected officials across the country has grown from a few hundred in 1965 to more than 11,000 today. We have an African American President (which few of us would have predicted within our lifetime in 1963), a Congressional Black Caucus with 43 members and African Americans mayors in at least 18 major cities. There is an African American U.S. Attorney General and there have been two African American Secretaries of State. All of this has happened within my lifetime.
Yet, today, the rate of poverty among African American children is more than triple the rate for white children. Poor African Americans are much more likely than poor white Americans to live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, which makes it more difficult to escape the cycle of poverty. The unemployment rate for African Americans remains double that for white Americans, and among African Americans ages 16-24 the rate is above 30% in 31 major cities. The median wealth for white families is 20 times that of African American families. De facto residential segregation persists and school segregation actually has increased during the past 30 years, while the incarceration rates for young men of color for non-violent crimes has exploded.
To explain the causes of these disparities we need only look at the institutional barriers that still persist:
- According to numerous studies, per capita school funding for white students remains substantially higher than it is for African American students.
- According to research by scholar Devah Pager in a report entitled “Mark of a Criminal Record”, young white men with a criminal record are more likely to be hired for entry-level jobs than young black men without a criminal record.
- According to reports by the Center for Responsible Lending and others, African American families have been disproportionately targeted by unscrupulous lenders for predatory loans.
- According to reports by The Sentencing Project and others, the rate of illegal drug use among young white men and young black men is essentially the same, but young black men are incarcerated at dramatically higher rates than young white men.
- According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, hate crimes and the proliferation of hate groups have increased since the election of President Obama.
- There is virtually no evidence of so-called “voter fraud,” which is the excuse for more stringent voting requirements being adopted in many states.
So, from the evidence can we conclude that ending the scourge of racism within our lifetime is a realistic possibility? I guess it depends on one’s age. I will continue to work toward this goal, but I am 71 years old, and I doubt it will happen. However, I have a great grandson who will turn two years old on August 28, the anniversary of the March. Maybe within his lifetime – if we continue the struggle and if we recognize that, as one colleague has said, ending racism “is not rocket science, it’s harder than rocket science.”