In the summer of 1963, whilst delivering his landmark ‘I Have a Dream’ speech to thousands of peaceful protesters from the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King refused to acknowledge that the very heart of America’s democratic institutions is both morally and politically corrupt. “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 cheque, a cheque that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.” In 2020 America, over half a century after that watershed speech, the American story on racial discrimination goes on. With thousands flocking to the streets right across America as a result of the death of George Floyd, a Black American who was brutally killed at the hands of police officers, many ponder why the United States is still addressing racial inequality in 2020.
America’s history on racial inequality has been predominantly turbulent and too often induced with violence. Despite the many remedies being applied to this dastardly disease, from the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, racial inequality is still omnipresent from coast to coast. So why does this intractable problem continue to persist? Why are African Americans continuously suffering a persisting disadvantaged status?
The problems facing racial inequality in 2020 is not the right to sit at the front of the bus, or the right to vote. Today, Black and/or African Americans are too often faced with the struggle for economic equality, completing a basic education, and racial disparities in incarceration. This article assesses each of these challenges.
Racial Economic Inequality
In the more than 50 years since the passing of the Civil Rights Act and the end of Jim Crow laws, African Americans have made significant economic progress. Many have gained greater incomes and wealth. Despite this, there is still a large disparity in economic wellbeing between Black Americans and the broader American population. Martin Luther King fought for economic justice and even condemned “the tragic inequalities of an economic system which takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes”. Unfortunately these “tragic inequalities” are evident in the following statistics released by the US Bureau of Labor. As of 2018, the national unemployment rate in the United States was 3.9%. However, at the same time, Black unemployment sat at a staggering 6.6%, higher than Hispanics and Asians and nearly double the national average. Yes, these numbers speak for themselves. During the Covid-19 pandemic, whilst the national unemployment rate rose to 13.3% as a result of widespread lockdowns, Black unemployment rate rose drastically to 16.8%, far more than any racial demographic in the United States. To add further insult, the median household income for African American households in 2017 was about $28,000 less than the average White household.
The bleak numbers on the economic disparity between Black America and the broader population underscore the staggering number of Black Americans who are struggling to put food on the table. Statistics released by the US Census in 2017 paint a grim picture. Approximately 23% of Black Americans live below the poverty line, a representation of 9.1 million of the total population. Given the numbers, Black Americans are twice as much as Whites or Asian Americans to live in poverty whilst making up more than one-fourth of America’s impoverished population.
Despite the substantial progress Black Americans have made in the area of education, many public schools, which are within their affordability range, are significantly underfunded whilst college tuition fees have soared beyond reach.
Despite 92% of Black Americans completing high school, a rise from 84% in the past 16 years, they are less likely to acquire the necessary tools to be able to successfully complete college or gain steady employment. This is partly due to the underperformance of many underfunded public schools. A recent report, published by Edbuild, a non-for-profit group, found that non-white school districts are disproportionately underfunded in comparison to white school districts. The report notes, “non-white school districts receive $23 billion less than white districts, despite serving the same number of students.” The disparity of funding can significantly affect a black student’s ability to access the latest technologies or augment their employability skills. A paper published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics concluded that an increase in school funding in predominantly black school districts significantly enhances the chances of Black Americans completing more years of education, earning higher wages and ultimately reducing the risk of poverty in adulthood.
On the education front, another challenge facing the African American community is the difficulty in attaining higher education. In the last two decades, the cost of attending a four-year public college has increased by thousands of dollars, essentially putting it out of reach of low-income Black Americans. The increase in tuition costs has put off many Black Americans who are unwilling to be burdened with large student loan debts. In 2016, approximately 36% of African Americans made up the total college enrolment rate, lower than whites, Hispanics and Asians. According to a Gallup poll in 2014, about half of Black American college students have a student debt of over $25,000, compared to whites where only 35% have such a debt.
Racial Disparities in Incarceration
Perhaps the most frightening statistics – emphasizing the racial disparities in present America – are the incarceration trends affecting Black Americans. According to Pew Research in 2017, the United States held about 475,900 Black American inmates, 39,400 more than white inmates. In 2018, there were 592 Black American inmates per 100,000 residents compared to 187 White American inmates per 100,000 residents incarcerated in the United States. Data suggest that if Black Americans were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, the prison population in America would decline by almost 40%.
These incarceration numbers highlight the detrimental plight facing Black Americans. The motives for resorting to crime are quite evident in the statistics mentioned in this piece. A culmination of poverty and inadequate education has given a lot of Black Americans a sense of hopelessness and as such resort to illegitimate means of earning money such as theft or dealing of illicit drugs. Incarceration of Black Americans only further paralyses any pursuit for full racial equality due to reduced likelihood of receiving a job offer due to a criminal record. The negative impact of a criminal record for Black American applicants seeking employment is twice as large compared to White Americans.
In the final analysis, the statistics presented in this piece underscore the hardships Black Americans are facing every day. The symptoms of America’s original sin are still evident today and is continuously manifesting itself in a manner that is preventing Black Americans from seeking the genuine racial equality that Martin Luther King envisioned. The brutal treatment of George Floyd at the hands of police officers underpins this notion that Black Americans are violent and are more prone to resorting to criminality. In fact, the wellbeing of Black Americans has been malnourished as a result of institutionalised racism that has deprived them of the most basic necessities in life; a stable income, a good education and a future that can positively contribute to the American story. Without addressing the very root of the problem, America will continuously face upheaval from disenfranchised Black Americans who are simply fed up being classified as second class citizens. Policy makers and community leaders must work together with the Black/African American community to stop the exorbitant bleeding which has all too often scattered the pages of history. Without addressing the very roots of racial inequality, the Black/African American community will continue returning the check of opportunity marked “insufficient funds”.