What appears to be racial progress in America is largely an illusion.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is honored for his great contribution to the struggle for human rights and social justice in America. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968 when he was organizing a national campaign to bring the issues of poverty to the attention of the political establishment of the United States.
In his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here?, he urged us to struggle against racism, capitalism, and militarism and to strive to create a beloved community based on moral values and human dignity. Let us consider the state of affairs in America in 1967 and compare them with the situation in America in 2013, over two decades later. First we will consider some dubious indicators of Black progress.
Gains in the political system
From 1954 to 1968, the back of segregation was broken. The Civil Rights Movement and the fury of the Black Power rebellions disrupted the civic and political fabric of American society and ushered in major social reforms.
Since the 1960s, Black people have made amazing gains in the governmental structures of America, especially with the election and re-election of Barack Obama. There are 43 African Americans serving in the 112th Congress, all in the House of Representatives. There have been 133 African American members of Congress: 127 have been elected to the House; five have been elected to the Senate; and two have been appointed to the Senate.
Growing Black middle class
Using education as a proxy for social class, the Black middle class has increased in size. In 1968, among Blacks over 25, five percent had some college, six percent had a bachelor’s degree, and one percent had a graduate or professional degree. By 2011, thirty-three percent had some college, 12 percent had a bachelor’s degree, and seven percent had a graduate or professional degree.
There has been a trend toward more social interaction, liberal attitudes, and interracial friendships and marriages. In 1967, 17 states criminalized interracial marriage. Moreover, interracial marriage was a taboo and stigmatized in all 50 states, with the possible exception of Hawaii.
But, over the last several decades, the American public has grown increasingly accepting of interracial dating and marriage. Black-White intermarriage increased threefold over 1980-2008, independent of changing socioeconomic status, suggesting declining social distance between Blacks and Whites.
Findings from a number of recent Pew Research Center surveys show that just as intermarriage has become more common, public attitudes have become more accepting. More than four in 10 Americans (43 percent) say that more people of different races marrying each other has been a change for the better in our society, while only about one in 10 think it is a change for worse. Being younger, more educated, liberal, and living in the Eastern or Western states are all traits associated with those who think more positively about intermarriage.
These positive changes suggest that the America is moving toward the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. But let us consider the negative trends.
Basic nitty-gritty realities
There is growing residential separation between the wealthy and the other classes. Research based on U.S. government documents show a 40-year trend of the relationship between growing family income inequality and increasing residential isolation among different family income groups, and that mixed-income neighborhoods have declined, while affluent and poor neighborhoods have grown much more common.
Furthermore, low-income Black families are much more isolated from middle-class Black families than are low-income White families from middle- and high-income White families. This rapid growth of income segregation among Black families has exacerbated the extent to which poor Black families live in neighborhoods with very high poverty rates.
Widening wealth and income inequality
Social science researchers Reardon and Bischoff noted that the growing isolation of high-income families has substantial implications, given that in 2008 the top 10 percent of earners controlled approximately 48 percent of all income in the United States. The increasing isolation of the affluent from low- and moderate-income families means that a significant proportion of society’s resources are concentrated in a smaller proportion of neighborhoods.
For low- and middle-income families, this isolation will invariably lead to lower public and private investments in resources, services, and amenities that benefit large shares of the population, such as schools, parks, and public services.
Extreme segregation of poor Blacks
Professors Massey and Denton show that in some urban areas the degree of Black segregation is so intense and occurs in so many dimensions simultaneously that it amounts to ”hyper segregation.” They demonstrate that this systematic segregation of African Americans leads inexorably to the creation of underclass communities during periods of economic downturn.
Under conditions of extreme segregation, any increase in the overall rate of Black poverty yields a marked increase in the geographic concentration of indigence and the deterioration of social and economic conditions in Black communities. They link persistent poverty among Blacks in the United States to the unparalleled degree of deliberate segregation they experience in American cities.
In his research, Professor John Powell focused on racialized concentrated poverty: economic and racial segregation. He described the history of the racial caste system inscribed in law and White suburbanization and urban sprawl in the 1950s-2000s. He explained how the role of race shaped the character of neighborhoods and political entities — towns, cities, and gated communities.
Capitalism a major source of the problem
In summary, in the first part of the 21st century, we have witnessed the continued mass incarceration of Black people, deterioration and privatizing of schools, disappearing jobs, decreasing job security, declining real incomes, and growing social inequality.
The race problem is fundamentally a matter of unequal power distribution and social inequality, not one of racial integration. Racial integration under the American capitalist system will not solve the most crucial problems facing the Black community.
From the point of view of most Blacks, racial integration is the preferred racial arrangement. However, the most pressing concerns are those related to the anti-Black criminal justice system, inadequate educational resources, unemployment, lack of affordable housing, political under-representation, and the weak enforcement of anti-discrimination laws.
The White wealthy class, through its political dominance, will continue to foster socioeconomic inequality by maintaining a capitalist system, which exploits the poor and unfairly rewards the rich. Martin Luther King, Jr. was right: We must struggle against ruthless, bottom-line capitalism.
Dr. Luke Tripp is a professor in the Department of Ethnic and Women’s Studies at St. Cloud State University. He welcomes reader responses to [email protected]