Friday, April 4, 2008

The Death of MLK & Racism In America Four Decades Later

Today is the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Eugene Robinson, writing in the Washington Post, takes stock of the strides we have made towards a post racial society as well as the lingering problems. What he does not address are the causes of the lingering problems as well as the limitations the left's identity politics imposes on our ability to debate and discuss solutions.

This from Eugene Robinson writing in today's Washington Post:

Forty years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, we sometimes talk about race in America as if nothing has changed. The truth is that everything has changed -- mostly for the better -- and that if we're ever going to see King's dream fulfilled, first we have to acknowledge that this is not an America he would have recognized.

On April 4, 1968, it was possible to make the generalization that being black in this country meant being poor; fully 40 percent of black Americans lived below the poverty line, according to census data, with another 20 percent barely keeping their heads above water. African Americans were heavily concentrated in the inner cities and the rural South. We were far less likely than whites to go to college, and our presence in the corporate world was minimal.

Today, about 25 percent of African Americans are mired in poverty. In many ways, being black and poor is a more desperate and hopeless condition now than it was 40 years ago. For those who managed to enter the middle class, however, most of the old generalizations no longer apply.

There remains a significant income gap between whites and blacks in this country, although it shrinks when educational level is factored in. But the gap in wealth, or net worth, is huge, even when you control for education, age, family size and whatever else you want to throw in. Still, African Americans control an estimated $800 billion in purchasing power. If that were translated into gross domestic product, a sovereign "Black America" would be the 15th- or 16th-richest nation on earth.

Forty years ago, not even 2 percent of black households earned the equivalent of $100,000 a year in today's dollars. Now, about 10 percent of black households have crossed that threshold. George and Louise Jefferson aren't so lonely anymore in that "deluxe apartment in the sky."

Then again, if "The Jeffersons" were being produced today, George and Louise probably wouldn't live in an apartment at all. More realistically, they'd be on a cul-de-sac in a suburban community. In Washington and a growing number of cities, more African Americans now live in the suburbs than within the city limits.

In a sense, then, the most striking measure of how far African Americans have come since 1968 isn't the rise of Barack Obama. It's the story of Stanley O'Neal.

That's not to minimize the prospect that a nation midwifed by slavery could soon have its first black president. But O'Neal did something that would have been equally unimaginable 40 years ago. He rose to become chief executive of Merrill Lynch, one of Wall Street's biggest firms; by all accounts, he was a taskmaster of a boss who cared less about whether subordinates liked him than he did about the bottom line. He placed big bets on mortgage-backed securities, generating record profits for the firm. When he got caught in the mortgage crisis several months ago and was forced to write off billions in losses, he resigned -- and floated back to earth with the help of one of the loveliest golden parachutes Wall Street has seen.

Oh, and his grandfather was born a slave.

Lacking family wealth accumulated by prior generations, middle-class black Americans are right to worry that their economic success is more precarious than that of many whites. But no one can deny that most African Americans today have opportunities that weren't remotely possible 40 years ago.

For those who haven't made it into the middle class, however, things are different. Inner-city communities were hollowed out -- a process accelerated by the riots that followed King's death -- and left fallow for decades. Middle-class professionals fled, businesses closed, schools disintegrated, family structures fell apart. Drugs and crime were symptoms of the general rot; the gentrification of recent years has just shifted the pathology from one part of the city to another, or perhaps to a close-in suburb, sweeping it into a corner.

The African American poor are a smaller segment than they were 40 years ago, but arguably they are further from full participation in society than they were in King's era. It's not that they have no interest in climbing the ladder, it's that too many rungs are missing.

It's misleading, then, to make any general statement about the condition of black Americans without recognizing black America's diversity. Economically speaking, there is one group of black Americans that has achieved success and one that hasn't -- and the distance between those groups is growing. To make more progress toward Martin Luther King's dream, we have to make an honest assessment of how far we've come -- and honestly account for who's been left behind.

Read the article. I believe Mr. Robinson accurately and eloquently states the tremendous progress towards a post racial society in America. And I beleive that he accurately identifies, in part, that there are lingering problems that have resulted in a disproportionate amount of our black population below the poverty level and, in many cases, rejecting traditional values.

Unfortunately, Mr. Robinson does not address the causes or solutions. Liberal solutions are not working, yet the left's identity politics has made any reasonable discussion about the problem impossible. If I ever hear Mr. Robinson or Mr. Obama state that criticisms of affirmative action programs or our other policies that impact on this situation are not inherently racist, then I think we may be moving into the final stages of Rev. King's dream of equality among the races.

Ironically, the initial promise of Barack Obama was to be able to end the identity politics and lead us onto that higher plane where honest and open discussion of race could occur. Obama's post-racial promise was to heal the divide brought on today far more by the left's identity politics than the shibboleth of systemic white racism. It promised to be a plane where the problems of the lower strata of blacks today could be realistically addressed without race cards being played.

That promise went out the window when Barack Obama spoke on race several days ago in order to defend his two decade long association with the poisonously racist Rev. Jerimiah Wright. He billed the speech as the start of a much needed dialogue on race. Yet he opened that speech by discussing the founding of our country and referring to slavery as white America's "original sin." That wasn't the start of any open dialogue on race, it was a game of 52 race card pick-up designed to forestall any cricitism of his association with Rev. Wright and Rev. Wrights vile racism.

I look forward to the day when America when MLK's dream of true racial equality becomes the complete reality. We are, in many ways, but a step away. It is unfortunate that I do not see anyone on the horizon who will help us to take those last few steps.

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