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Report: 40 Years After King, Little Progress in Closing Economic Inequality Gap Between African Americans and Whites

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In the late 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King recognized that the next phase in the quest for civil rights and equality would focus on the economic divide. A new report from the Institute for Policy Studies titled “40 Years Later: The Unrealized American Dream” lays out key elements of the inequality that African Americans still experience in the United States around education, employment and wealth accumulation. We speak with the co-author of the report, Dedrick Muhammad. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We end today’s show with another part of our series, “1968: Forty Years Later.” It’s been four decades since Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee outside his room at the Lorraine Motel. King was there to support striking sanitation workers, who he saw as being on the front lines of fighting poverty, and integral to his new initiative, the Poor People’s Campaign. In the late 1960s, King recognized that the next phase in the quest for civil rights and equality would focus on the economic divide.

How far have we come? A new report from the Institute for Policy Studies lays out key elements of the inequality that African Americans still experience in the United States around education, employment and wealth accumulation. It’s called “40 Years Later: The Unrealized American Dream.”

AMY GOODMAN: Dedrick Muhammad is senior organizer and research associate at the Institute for Policy Studies, co-author of the report, joining us from Washington.

Dedrick, what did you find?

DEDRICK MUHAMMAD: Well, what we found in the report is that African Americans have made some progress, particularly in the realm of education, where since about 1968, blacks have attained high school diplomas or GEDs — that has increased by 200 percent — and college graduation rates has increased by 400 percent. So in those areas there has been some success, some progress.

But where we find the progress very much lacking is in the economic divide, which I believe and which I believe Dr. King understood, was the center component of the racial wealth divide in America. We found in 1968, African Americans were making about fifty-four cents on every dollar that white Americans were making. And in 2005, African Americans were only making fifty-seven cents on every dollar that white Americans were making. So over those four decades, African Americans had only increased by three cents. And at this rate, it would take 537 years for African Americans to reach income parity, which I believe and I hope the country believes that’s unacceptable.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And of course, the — over those forty years, the racial composition of the country has changed dramatically, with large numbers of Latinos and Asian Americans and Africans, as well, coming into the population. Your sense of how that has affected the economic progress for the most dispossessed in the country?

DEDRICK MUHAMMAD: Well, I’m not exactly — I haven’t seen clear evidence of how, let’s say, mass Latino immigration over the last forty years has directly hurt or helped African American progress. What we do find is that African Americans and Latinos most often are in very similar boats when it comes to income, when it comes to wealth, and I think even most importantly when it comes to solutions that would most benefit both of these communities, would help make America more of an equal opportunity nation for all.

AMY GOODMAN: I was particularly struck on the issue of education, the report that African American college graduation rates will not be on a par with white graduation rates for another eighty years. The income gap between blacks and whites will not disappear for, well, according to current rates, 500 years.

DEDRICK MUHAMMAD: Yeah. I mean, again, I think — what I’m hoping this report can really help highlight to the nation is that too often, I believe, we look at Dr. King and we celebrate his birthday as if he died after a victory. But Dr. King died on a battlefield. And on that battlefield, he understood that there was still much work to be done. And I’m hoping this report can help highlight that we still need to fight this battle and that when we look at Dr. King, we need to embrace the struggle as a struggle that has been incompleted and that the dream is still just that, a dream. And America finally needs to come together and say we’re going to make this a reality.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think needs to be done right now? What will close the income gap, the wealth gap, the education gap?

DEDRICK MUHAMMAD: I think Dr. King had a clear analysis of what would do this, and he put forward a bill of rights for the disadvantaged, and he supported what was called a 1966 freedom budget. He understood that in the 1930s and ’40s there was massive federal investment in education and subsidies for higher education, subsidies for home ownership and the creation of mass job opportunities, which really created the great white middle class that was so prevalent in the 1950s and ’60s. African Americans were discriminated against outrightly in that time period and faced segregation laws and were not able to participate in that type of mass funding.

So again, Dr. King understood in ’68, and we put forward today in 2008, there needs to be a new New Deal, a new mass investment into the middle class and working class that will help the middle class deal with these skyrocketing costs of whether it be health insurance, education, promoting more job opportunities. And only then, when we finally have a new New Deal, which all Americans can finally benefit from, including African Americans, Latinos and even poor whites, who are still struggling in this economy, only then will we really have this equal opportunity and really make Dr. King ’s dream a true reality.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in the about thirty seconds we have left, could you give us a sense whether the home ownership crisis, the subprime crisis, given the enormous amount of wealth tied up by African Americans in their homes, how that is impacting on the wealth divide?

DEDRICK MUHAMMAD: Well, I think we’re going to see in the next few years that African Americans are going to take a step back in their accumulation of wealth. The State of the Dream 2008 by United for a Fair Economy highlighted that they expect African Americans and Latinos each to lose about $70 billion to $90 billion of wealth. So this is going to be an ongoing story that’s going to require again some serious government commitment to help deal with the receding wealth that I think the subprime crisis is going to cause, and they can also invest in building wealth for all Americans and, again, create a truly equal opportunity society.

AMY GOODMAN: Dedrick Muhammad, we want to thank you for being with us, of Institute for Policy Studies. We will link to your report, “40 Years Later: The Unrealized American Dream.”

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