– Martin Luther King, Jnr.
Yesterday, hundreds of thousands of US citizens assembled in Washington, DC to organise a march commemorating the 50th anniversary of landmark civil rights leader Martin Luther King Junior’s famous “I have a dream speech”, the full text of which can be read here. The speech is one of the most quoted orations in history, not least because of its rhetorical mastery, but because of the audacious and propitious vision it sets out for the future of civil rights. Throughout the civil rights movement, promises were made to the African American community; promises of equality, freedom and justice, made by elected officials and leaders such as King alike. But fifty years after King made history through his temerity and courage, has the “dream” of racial equality actually come true?
In order to assess the condition of racial equality in the US, we must first establish the criteria by which we define it. Measuring the success of the civil rights movement does not just mean measuring how far black and white Americans are legally equal. This provides us with just a narrow view of racial equality. What is more pertinent to this assessment, as well as the thousands who marched yesterday, is the extent to which social, economic and political equality has been achieved. African Americans theoretically enjoy the exact same legal rights as their white counterparts; the question is how these rights are translated and applied in everyday life.
Let’s first examine economic equality. At the time of the “I have a dream” speech, the unemployment rate was 5% for white people and 10.9% for black people. Today, however, the unemployment rate is 6.6% for white people and 14% for black people. Although the ratio of black-white unemployment has fallen slightly since 1963, the unemployment rate of African Americans still runs at over twice that of white citizens, despite 50 years of “progress” having been made. But it is through examining poverty that we gain the most insight. Under the same measure of poverty, there are clear inequalities between races in the US. In 2011, the overall poverty rate by this definition in the US was at 11.7%. However, the percentage amongst black families was at an astounding 28.1%; almost a third of all families. Furthermore, these statistics have increased in recent years, since the rate in 2005 was 25.5%. This could indicate that African Americans have been hit harder by the effects of the recession and the Wall Street crash than other citizens.
Social equality and economic equality are directly interlinked; the fact that so many more African Americans live in poverty is reflected in the incessant trend towards ghettoization of black communities. Before the Civil Rights Acts were passed, this was a direct result of de jure segregation; the separating of races sanctioned by law. Although segregation was outlawed decades ago, its effects have long outlived it. The trend that can still be observed to this day is that of de facto segregation; it occurs in practice as a direct consequence of the legal inequalities. One such example of this phenomenon is in Washington DC. Although the district has the highest population of people with graduate degrees in the entirety of the USA, 37% of residents there are functionally illiterate. Of those who are functionally illiterate, the overwhelming majority are African Americans living in downtown DC, in neighbourhoods which are predominantly black and where poverty is the norm. The District of Columbia has an area of just 176.9 km², yet this small sampling size provides us with the clearest picture of the deep-seated inequalities between white and black Americans which persist to this day.
Despite the trend towards racial inequality deepening rather than mitigating, the tide of public opinion has increasingly been turning against affirmative action: positive measures taken to encourage the representation of ethnic minorities in certain jobs or higher education programmes. The programmes were trumpeted by President Lyndon Banes Johnson:
“You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say you are free to compete with all the others, and still just believe that you have been completely fair.”
But these programmes have proven to be controversial. University admissions programmes which use affirmative action to increase racial diversity are often presented with legal challenges, such as in the cases of Hopwood v Texas and Fisher v University of Texas, and the increasing tendency is for courts to regard such programmes with hostility. Public opinion has also taken a dip; the results of an ABC/Washington Post poll over whether race should be a factor taken into account by university admissions showed that 76% opposed, 22% voiced support and 2% were undecided. Whilst opinion poll results vary, the overall trend is of declining support. Of course, public opinion pointing unfavourably towards affirmative action does not necessarily indicate increasing racial hostility. Rather, it shows a change in political climate and changing priorities. What this in turn proves to us is that racial equality as an issue is slipping further down on the political agenda. This is reflected in the fact that less than 1/10 of participants in yesterday’s march were white. But at the march 50 years ago, 1/5 participants were.
The over-arching message is a clear one; racial equality is now not as important an issue to voters as it was 50 years ago. But that does not mean that the issue has disappeared. It does not mean that there are not still deep-seated inequalities which persist through generations of African Americans. And lastly, it certainly does not mean that politicians should ignore the issue of racial equality. As long as these inequalities are prevalent in US society, citizens are not free and equal. They are merely regarded as being so, which is far more dangerous than we can imagine.