Solemn memorials marking the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. tended to emphasize how far the U.S. has come in 50 years. On April 4, the media were full of encomiums to the ways in which King’s dream is being realized today.
That portrayal leaves out a few important facts.
To start with, the median net worth of white Americans today, 50 years after King’s death, is nearly 10 times that of African Americans. White families in the U.S. have, to a significant extent, recovered from the recession of 2008-09; not black and Hispanic families.
The net worth of all families dropped an average of 30 per cent during the Great Recession, but, according the U. S. central bank, the Federal Reserve, black and Hispanic families experienced an additional drop of 20 per cent from 2010 to 2013.
White families are twice as likely to own a business than black and Hispanic families; owe far less in student loans; and have far greater amounts invested for retirement, per capita. When times get tough black families have less to fall back on than white families and many are forced to dip into their retirement savings. That is precisely what happened in 2008-09.
Black families also have a significantly lower rate of home ownership than white families, which, given the U.S. tax system, exacerbates the economic gap between black and white. The U.S. tax code, unlike Canada’s, allows homeowners, who are in the large majority white, to deduct interest paid on their mortgages.
Like Canada, the U.S. gives preferential treatment to retirement savings, which also benefits whites to a far greater extent than blacks. The most recent Trump tax changes will only add insult to this injurious picture. They will disproportionately favour millionaires and billionaires, a group that is overwhelmingly white.
There are rights and there is justice
When Martin Luther King was killed he had already moved from working for full political and civil rights for African Americans to economic rights and economic justice. He went to Memphis in the spring of 1968 to support the city’s garbage collectors' demands for economic justice. That support signified a shift from King’s fight for mere legal rights, for equality before the law and for the elimination of race-based barriers.
In April 1968, King was in the process of elaborating a new, far-reaching and radical program that would include a demand to redistribute wealth and income.
Martin Luther King knew full well that access to the ballot box and schools and lunch counters was not sufficient to redress four centuries of enslavement, exploitation and exclusion. His project, by 1968, was not merely to take on petty and insulting discriminatory measures. He was working toward a frontal attack on America’s sacrosanct free enterprise system.
Too often, those who sanctify the memory of King try to turn him into a compliant and moderate figure -- an establishment reformer. Those who knew him argue that such a picture misses the truth. King was, they say, a radical, who was not satisfied with the limited progress the movement had made by 1968.
There has been progress since King’s death, but it has been inconsistent.
Too often, just when African Americans have achieved a measure of greater economic or political status, white backlash, in various forms, has reversed that advancement. This has happened in the economic sphere, with the reversal of many affirmative action measures enacted in the civil rights era.
And white America, or at least a good part of it, has also attacked the basic achievements of Martin Luther King’s struggle for rights.
The right to vote does not exist in reality for many
Many states, for instance, have enacted measures to hobble African Americans’ right to vote. They use gerrymandering, notoriously, artistically designing electoral districts in such a way that maximizes the influence of white and conservative voters, while dividing and segmenting black and Hispanic voters. The fact that Americans, to a great extent, continue to live in what are effectively racially segregated communities makes that task easier.
States also continue to make it difficult for African Americans to register to vote, with new and onerous identity requirements. And once black voters are registered many states make it hard for them to exercise their franchise. Partisan state officials locate voting places in difficult-to-access sites and limit the opportunities for advance voting.
In the United States’ dysfunctional democracy, elections are not managed by non-partisan agencies similar to Elections Canada. They are managed entirely by über-partisan, state-level political operatives. To assert their basic right to vote members of minority communities must often go to court to fight the measures implemented by these partisans.
There was one such notorious case, recently, involving Pennsylvania. A court ordered that state to re-draw its gerrymandered congressional districts. A new electoral map in Pennsylvania will make a big difference in that state in the mid-term elections later this year. For many other states where there is similar gerrymandering, any potential challenge will be too late to have an impact this year.
One of the most egregious ways in which the U.S. denies African-Americans the right to vote -- again, 50 years after the death of Martin Luther King -- is to take it away from people who served time in prison.
While prisoners in Canada can vote while they are serving their sentences, many of their counterparts in the U.S. cannot vote, sometimes for the rest of their lives, even after they are released. The rules vary state-by-state, but one of the largest, Florida, imposes a lifetime voting ban on anyone who was ever convicted of a felony. Notionally, felonies are serious crimes; but many non-violent drug crimes are classified as felonies.
A new system of racial segregation
Lifetime voting bans are part of a bigger and frightening picture that lawyer and author Michelle Alexander paints in her book The New Jim Crow. It is not for nothing that this book, first published in 2010, is banned in many U.S. prisons.
Alexander explains how, after the end of official racial segregation and discrimination via the so-called Jim Crow laws, the U.S. has used the criminal justice system, and in particular the so-called War on Drugs, to limit the rights, opportunities and freedoms of millions of African Americans.
President Ronald Reagan initiated the War on Drugs in the early 1980s. Media dutifully portrayed the War as a battle against an epidemic of crystalline crack cocaine use and the criminality that accompanied it –- an epidemic that afflicted African American communities. Left out of the narrative, and the war, were the far more numerous white consumers of (higher-class) drugs such as cocaine in powder form.
As a result of this war, to quote Alexander: “In less than 30 years, the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million. The United States now has the highest incarceration rate in the world, dwarfing even highly oppressive regimes in Russia, China and Iran.”
What is most striking about this mass incarceration, writes Alexander, is its “racial dimension”. The United States “imprisons a larger percentage of its black population that did South Africa at the height of Apartheid. In Washington, D.C., it is estimated that three out of four young black men can expect to serve time in prison.”
The impact of this new Jim Crow on those who serve time is devastating. They not only lose the right to vote, they become ineligible for social assistance and housing, are virtually unemployable, and constitute lifelong targets for police harassment.
The Black Lives Matter movement is a reaction to the recent increase in police brutality in the U.S., which is, in turn, an outcome of the increased militarization of local policing.
The friendly cop walking the beat is a happy trope of an America that probably never existed. Today, we have techno-cop, armed for combat, treating African American neighbourhoods as war zones. In such a world, walking or driving while black can easily become a dangerous activity.
But the sporadic assassinations of young black men who are just going about their daily business is just, in fact, the tip of the iceberg. Michelle Alexander’s analysis of the new shape of racial segregation in the U.S. provides a much fuller picture.
As the world remembers the soaring oratory and seeming optimistic idealism of Dr. King, it should also reflect on how King’s dream is being betrayed daily by a U.S. criminal justice system that, under the guise of upholding law and order, preys on young African Americans.
Photo: Joe Brusky/Flickr
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