Cut the wealth gap: A civil rights fight

Posted: January 24, 2006

On Jan. 15 at Bryn Mawr College, Acel Moore addressed the Main Line Martin Luther King Association. An excerpt:

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of America, a nation in which character would be the test of an individual's worth, not only remains unfulfilled but will probably stay that way well into the 21st century.

Yes, a younger generation of blacks and other "people of color" have never experienced the humiliation of Jim Crow laws, have never witnessed segregation, have always had an opportunity to vote. But we still have a long way to go.

Yes, the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act made access to public accommodations and the right to vote a reality for all Americans. But we still have a long way to go.

There have been advances in political empowerment, as evidenced by the now 43 members of the Congressional Black Caucus - including one U.S. senator from Illinois, Barack Obama - and larger numbers of Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, and women in Congress. In 1968, when King was murdered, only six members of Congress were black.

Since King's death, a black middle class has arisen. Signs that say "white" and "colored" are gone. But nearly 38 years after King's death, America is still polarized and divided, not only by race, but also by class.

It's easy enough to say, "It's not race, it's class," but class disparities enforce racial division. Hurricane Katrina made that very clear to us. Many of the thousands stranded by Katrina were there simply because they had no transportation. One study by the National Center for Disaster Preparedness found that nearly 25 percent of all black households,

17 percent of all Latino households, 15 percent of all Native American households and 13 percent of all Asian households owned no vehicle in 2000, compared with only 7 percent of white households.

The median net worth of white families rose 6 percent between 2001 and 2004 to $136,000 dollars, compared to the black median net worth, which remained at $20,000. Overall, whites have about $1 of wealth for every dime blacks have. This old disparity reflects not just inequalities in education and job opportunity, but also a long history of exclusionary, discriminatory public policies.

As Brandeis University professor Tom Shapiro wrote last year, African Americans were forced out of the greatest wealth-building opportunities in American history: the Homestead Acts in the 1860s; education and homeownership opportunities provided by the GI Bill and the FHA. African Americans have been victims of mortgage-lending discrimination, and racist attitudes depressed property values in poor and minority neighborhoods. The major government-sponsored wealth-building opportunities that helped to create the American middle class have, for the most part, left African Americans out in the cold.

If King were alive today, he would be talking about these economic disparities. King would confront them. The poor people's campaign he was leading at the time of his assassination was a bold effort to address this very issue. He would exhort those of us who have achieved some success - especially African Americans - to reach back and give a hand up and guidance to our brothers and sisters whose lack of self-esteem, hope, and focus on the future is leading them to destroy themselves and each other.

Narrowing the racial wealth gap should be a civil rights priority in the 21st century. Until that gap narrows, blacks and Hispanics will not be able to help their children and grandchildren find security and advancement in the years ahead, breaking the cycle of poverty for good. Closing the wealth gap will require sustained effort on many fronts; removing entrenched practices that result in mortgage-lending bias and other forms of institutional discrimination is critical. Improving access to high-quality education for poor and minority children is also essential. The work under way in the Pennsylvania legislature to reduce property taxes should include new approaches to funding under-resourced urban and rural schools fairly. And - perhaps most challenging - we must rebuild the resilience and strength of black families and communities.

What gives me hope are the young people here today, a generation that did not witness King's leadership. They have benefited from the struggle of which King is not only a symbol but the soul. They are here today because they recognize the significance of that struggle, and the inclusiveness of the civil rights movement. For civil rights or equal opportunity is not a special interest. It is an American interest.

So it is up to you to take charge and lead this nation to the place King talked about, fought for, and died for. We can't wait for the second coming of King or Malcolm X. We all must become leaders. Each of us must commit to the quest for justice.

None of this will be easy. None will get done if we persist in playing left vs. right, liberal vs. conservative, personal responsibility vs. living on the dole. If he were here, King would have none of the divisive, shrill discourse so common on so many issues, on the airwaves and among our political leadership today. Let us rededicate ourselves to the ideals he stood for and promise to work harder, and work together, to realize his dream for a better America.

Contact Acel Moore at amoore@phillynews.com.

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