This week is the national celebration of the birth and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The great civil rights leader not only symbolized the dream of equal opportunity, he provided moral authority and credible leadership during an era when black Americans desperately pursued that elusive dream.
He is without peer in galvanizing and mobilizing the masses to march in unison to his worthy cause of freedom and justice. Black America has not seen the likes of such leadership since his death and, unfortunately, may never again.
Had he lived, Dr. King might agree that part of the dream he described during his most famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963 has taken shape for many blacks.
Aided by civil rights legislation he helped pass in 1964, substantial numbers of blacks have gained entrance to higher status and higher paying jobs. Their access to opportunity was followed by the emergence of a growing middle class.
From the 1960s through the 90s, for example, black education levels were up across the board and black income grew impressively. By 2000, almost 58 percent black households had an annual income of $35,000 or more compared to just 38.2 percent in 1970 (The recession caused that number to drop to just 46 percent in 2011).
Although black incomes have improved significantly since the Civil Rights era, disparities still remain. For too many, the Promised Land is a dream deferred.
The most dramatic change is the percentage of black households making under $15,000, which is well below the poverty line. The rising poverty rate has gone from fewer than 15 percent in 2000 to just over 27 percent in 2011, reflecting a dire trend. This was the highest percentage since 1993, but not as high as the 1960s.
But that’s only half the poverty story. More that five percent of blacks receive public cash assistance, which is twice the national share. Even more disturbing is that 26 percent of blacks receive some sort of food stamp assistance, which also may be partly recession-related; partly a lack of a work ethic and breakdown in social norms. And unemployment rates remain twice as high for blacks as our white counterparts.
Nevertheless, the wage gap between high- and low-income blacks is also growing. But it is not surprising that those with rising incomes are most likely to be business executives and professionals. Their households are more likely to contain traditional, married-couple families where both spouses work and education levels are high.
It is also not shocking that those most likely to be poor are in single-parent, female-headed households. Among this group can be found a strong correlation between family breakdown, social dysfunction and poverty. So there’s reason to be concerned the black fractured family structure bodes ill for the movement of more blacks into the economic mainstream.
A wealth of documentation shows that children from poor families tend to score lower on math and behavior tests than their affluent counterparts. They are inclined to engage in early sexual activity, disengage from schools, experiment with drugs, and are tempted by crime and prone to develop a proclivity for living part of their life in prison.
As daunting as these statistics are, the overall picture is one of good news. Racism is not dead. Utopia has not been achieved. Most blacks are not poor, criminals or on welfare.
Addressing the social trends might be possible if black America still had a charismatic leader to rally the downtrodden and disaffected around solutions to their self-destructive tendencies. To that end, the worse affliction of black America today may be the leadership void left by Dr. King’s passing.
But as Dr. King admonished us in his “I Have a Dream” speech, “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.” From our humble beginnings we have learned that the American dream is alive and well for stable families and those who value education – for blacks as well as whites.