It was 50 years ago this April 4th that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, while assisting striking sanitation workers.
Back then, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was just beginning to chip away at discrimination in education, jobs and public facilities. Black voters had only recently obtained legal protections, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act was about to become law.
Today, the U.S. may seem very different than it was on April 4, 1968. African-Americans now hold positions of power, from mayor to corporate chief executive – and not so long ago, president.
But as a scholar of minority politics, I know that despite improvements, black Americans are still fighting many of the same battles as Dr. King.
In 1968, just 10 percent of whites lived below the federal poverty line, while nearly 34 percent of African-Americans did. Likewise, just 2.6 percent of white job seekers were unemployed, compared to 6.7 percent of black job seekers.
A year before his death, Dr. King and others began organizing a Poor People’s Campaign to demonstrate that “America’s poor of all races” are “sick and tired of waiting for a better life.”
On May 28, 1968, one month after King’s assassination, his friend, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, lead the mass anti-poverty march through Washington, DC. Individuals from across the nation erected a tent city on the National Mall, called Resurrection City.
“We come with an appeal to open the doors of America to the almost 50 million Americans who have not been given a fair share of America’s wealth and opportunity,” Abernathy said, “and we will stay until we get it.”
A half-century later, poverty is still too common in the U.S. In 1968, 25 million Americans — roughly 13 percent of the population — lived below poverty level. In 2016, 43.1 million – or more than 12.7 percent – do.
Today’s black poverty rate of 22 percent is almost three times that of whites. Compared to the 1968 rate of 32 percent, that’s not a huge improvement. Black households earn $57.30 for every $100 earned by white families. And for every $100 in white family wealth, black families hold just $5.04.
Another troubling sign is how many black families are headed by single women, an important figure because of the connection between poverty and female-headed households. In the 1960s, unmarried women were the main breadwinners for 20 percent of households. Recently, the percentage has risen as high as 72 percent.
Black Americans today are also more dependent on government aid than they were in 1968. Currently, almost 40 percent of African-Americans qualify for welfare, housing assistance and other government programs that offer modest support to families living under the poverty line.
That’s higher than any other U.S. racial group. Just 21 percent of Latinos, 18 percent Asian-Americans and 17 percent of whites are on welfare.
There are, of course, positive trends. Today, far more African-Americans graduate from college – 38 percent – than they did 50 years ago. Our incomes are also way up. Black adults experienced a more significant income increase from 1980 to 2016 – from $28,667 to $39,490 – than any other U.S. demographic group: The rise of the black middle class.
Legally, African-Americans may live in any community they want – and from Beverly Hills to the Upper East Side, they do.
Some prominent black thinkers attribute the relative lack of black progress since 1968 to institutional racism.
The award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that racism has so held back African-Americans throughout history that we deserve reparations, resurfacing a claim with a long history in black activism. Civil rights activist Michelle Alexander, for her part, believes that mass incarceration is a modern-day version of Jim Crow-era segregation.
More conservative thinkers may encourage black people to take “personal responsibility” for their problems. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson is in this camp, along with public intellectuals like Thomas Sowell and Larry Elder.
Dr. King talked about institutional racism. In 1968, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council sought to tackle inequality with the Economic Bill of Rights, which insisted on every citizen’s right to educational opportunities, a home, a good job, access to land and a living wage.
To achieve this, King proposed, the U.S. should develop incentives to increase jobs for black Americans. He also recommended a “program to supplement the income of those whose earnings are below the poverty level.”
Those ideas, revolutionary in 1968, predicted the universal basic income concept and influenced Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 progressive presidential campaign.
Dr. Sharon Austin is associate professor of political science at the University of Florida. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation https://theconversation.com..