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Nine-year old Micah Brown looks over the King program as he sits along a window during the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. January 16, 2017. REUTERS/Tami Chappell - RC1EB13B3AB0
Social Mobility Memos

Our day of reckoning

What is the state of opportunity in America? As we mark Dr. King’s birthday, it is worth pausing to ask if we have made the type of progress he envisioned.  The U.S. that Dr. King bequeathed to us in 1968 was, demographically, a very different one. No one was talking then about the browning of America. Politically, it was an era of insiders and outsiders.  Insiders held the reigns of government; outsiders protested to be able to gather those reigns in their hands. Socially and economically for people of color, it was a place of violence and highly constrained dreams.

Is the arc bending still?

In 2018, we have experienced eight years under an African-American president, and one under a president who represents a bygone era. We now acknowledge the deadly police violence against young men of color even though we are far from rectifying the racist and distorted view of these young men that has been prevalent in this country for over 400 years.

As we mark Dr. King’s birthday, it is worth pausing to ask if we have made the type of progress he envisioned.

Politically, it seems as if we are at best standing still, at worst, bending backward to a meaner, crueler moment.  But if one looks at the forest, they see that for the first time, more than half of the young people under age 10 are people of color.  We have moved from an America that didn’t want to acknowledge the humanity of people of color to one whose economy will, in 20 years, depend heavily on these very young people.

The race gap in prospects and life changes

What are the prospects for these young people? The Annie E. Casey Foundation published their annual Kids Count report in October of 2017.  That report noted that African-American and Native American kids still face the stiffest odds for success in the U.S.  The Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey demonstrates that African-American and Latino young men have much lower levels of employment and lower levels of educational attainment and are far more likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts. And African-American men are experiencing one of the lowest labor participation rates since 1971.  To be competitive in the world economy, we have to ensure that there are not significant numbers of working age adults who are either absent from or underutilized in the economy.  If some significant portion of young people are poorly educated, and/or missing in employment statistics, it means that the American economy is simply not performing at optimal levels.

The American Dream is out of reach for too many

In 2018, the U.S. is still struggling with stagnant economic mobility for communities of color. We are regrettably humbled by a very significant racial wealth gap.  The Federal Reserve’s updated figures on U.S. wealth demonstrate that a significant wealth gap remains, even after post- Great Recession gains.  In 2016, white families had the highest level of both median and mean family wealth: $171,000 and $933,700, respectively. Black families have considerably less wealth than white families. Black families’ median and mean net worth is less than 15 percent that of white families, at $17,600 and $138,200, respectively.

To that set of statistics have been added a regressive federal tax reform and miserly approach to social benefits that exacerbate inequality and stifle the possibility of economic mobility. Federal social and economic policies are working from an anachronistic blueprint and are undermining the future of the American economy.

Dr. King worked tirelessly for us to recognize the common humanity of all races and stripes of people who make up this country.  The browning of America is an exorable trend and our day of reckoning is not too far away—to be a thriving America, we have to be an America of opportunity.

How fitting, Dr. King.

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