by Congresswoman Barbara Lee
In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Stanford University to deliver the first iteration of his speech, “The Other America.” Dr. King called attention to the disparate “two Americas” in which whites and Blacks lived – one filled with potential and prosperity and the other filled with “blasted hopes and shattered dreams.”
Dr. King called attention to the disparate “two Americas” in which whites and Blacks lived – one filled with potential and prosperity and the other filled with “blasted hopes and shattered dreams.”
When Dr. King gave this speech in 1967, the Civil Rights Movement was at a turning point. Unrest in America’s cities was growing in intensity and violence, and Dr. King’s activism began tackling the root of this upheaval: economic inequality.
I hope you take the time to watch and read this very profound, uplifting speech, for it is as relevant now as it was then. It is this stage of the struggle that we are still living. Forty-eight years later, Dr. King’s economic justice agenda is largely on hold and the two Americas he spoke of are intact – particularly for people of color.
The fact is, more people of color still struggle in our society. The poverty rate for African Americans is 28 percent; for Latinos, it is 25 percent. Native Americans have the highest poverty rate of all at 29 percent. For whites, the poverty rate is 13 percent.
During the Great Recession, the poverty rate among Asian Americans grew by 37 percent – more than any other demographic group. Fourteen percent of Asian Pacific American seniors are on food stamps, compared with a national average of 9 percent.
Employment statistics for people of color are lopsided too. In 1967, Dr. King pointed out that while the current national unemployment rate was 4 percent, for African Americans it was 8.4 percent. Today the national unemployment rate is 5.8 percent; for African Americans it is 10.9 percent, and for Latinos it is 6.8 percent.
In 1967, the average income for Blacks was 50 percent of what it was for whites. Today, it’s 65 percent for Black families and 68 percent for Latino families. The racial gap in assets is even wider: White families have a median net worth 13 times higher than Black families and 10 times higher than Latino families.
These disparities are why Dr. King called for “massive action programs” to compensate for the fact that African Americans had historically been denied access to government aid. Today, the great social programs of the ‘60s – Head Start, Food Stamps (now SNAP), Job Corps, Medicaid – have their funding cut year after year. And those programs serve all low-income Americans; federal public programs specifically tasked with closing racial economic gaps are mostly wishful thinking.
And in addition to targeted economic programs, Dr. King wanted to see a “guaranteed minimum income” for all families – Black and white. While social security provides such an income to seniors and people living with disabilities, a program of this sort covering all Americans is still also wishful thinking.
The fact is, more people of color still struggle in our society.
Fully funding a robust safety net would go a long way toward closing these gaps. Creating programs whose explicit purpose is closing these gaps must be something we strive for.
Today, let’s renew our commitment to making economic equality a reality. Because, as Dr. King said in 1967, “Social progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.”
We have to make it happen.
Barbara Lee, Member of Congress
First elected to Congress from Oakland and the East Bay in 1998, Rep. Barbara Lee is a Senior Democratic Whip, former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and former co-chair of the Progressive Caucus. In 2007, she joined other progressive members of the Black, Asian and Hispanic caucuses in Congress to form the Congressional Out of Poverty Caucus to eliminate poverty in the U.S. She can be reached at https://barbaralee.house.gov/contact/.