David Webber Columbia MISSOURIAN, April 17, 2018
Last week’s remembrances of Martin Luther King Jr. caused me to read, for the first time, King’s last book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” In it, King writes about his concern about the term “Black Power” and assesses the strategic position of African Americans. What caught my attention, however, is the appendix titled: “Programs and Prospects” that contains insights and proposals about education, employment, rights and housing that equal his world-class ability as a community organizer and preacher. The book provides a vantage point for conjecturing about the frequently asked question, “What would King say about racial progress if he were alive today?”
I imagine King might recognize that the election of President Barack Obama was a milestone for racial progress but might single out the “School to Prison Pipeline” as illustrative of our failure to address fundamental aspects of our society.
King had high expectations and lots of criticism of the role that public education might have in reducing inequality. King acknowledged the additional challenges faced by children of poor families and wrote, “The job of the school is to teach so well that family background is no longer an issue.” He hoped that efforts such as Headstart could prepare at-risk students for educational success. King would have been disappointed, but not surprised, at the quality of education received by many African American kids.
While black high school graduation rates have increased to about 90 percent, nearly the same as for white students, test scores show a different picture. NAEP scores have gradually increased for all students, but black students are between 25-30 points behind in math and reading. One report found that black students enter high school about three years behind white students.
King proposed federal education parks, a large-scale magnet school in metropolitan areas that would be integrated and expending resources to close the achievement gap. In the half century since King’s death, I suspect he would have said that we have spent too much time and resources arguing about busing, even in Boston, and affirmative action rather than learning how to teach to at risk students.
Nationally, about 63 percent of students who begin college finish within six years. That figure is 45 percent for African Americans. In 1989, 25 percent of white men and women had college degrees, by 2009, college grads were 32 percent of white men and 41 percent of white women. For black men and women, the percent with college degrees increased from 12 percent in 1989 to 18 percent for men and 21 percent for women in 2009.
There are still wide disparities in economic factors. White families earn about $55,000 a year compared with $32,000 for Black families. While shocking, income is more equally distributed than wealth and savings. In 2011, the median white household had $111,146 in wealth compared to $7,113 for the median black household. Seventy-three percent of white families own their own home compared to 45 percent black families. Home ownership is usually the major asset by which families store wealth that is bequest to the next generation. Discriminatory patterns in the housing market persists in many cities.
Public policies based in tax credits rather than direct services have ironically perpetuated economic inequality because tax breaks like the Home Mortgage Interest deduction, the largest tax break, is worth more as family income increases.
The incarceration rate of African Americans has nearly tripled between 1968 and 2016 — perhaps the most disappointing development in civil rights in the last 50 years. African Americans are 6.4 times more likely than whites to be jailed or imprisoned largely due to non-violent drug arrests. Removing black men from families is disruptive, reduces income and, most importantly, removes male role models. King would have been an eloquent advocate for reforming American prisons.
King subtitled his last book “Chaos or Community?” It would certainly be easier to argue for the former than the latter. On one hand, the black middle class has expanded, there are black quarterbacks and coaches in the NFL; on the other, racial profiling, differential poverty rates, and social rhetoric denies that we have made sufficient process toward King’s “beloved community.”
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.