Op-Ed, 652 words

Dr. King’s Nightmare

The wealth possessed by our nation's 400 richest billionaires is equal to the collective net worth of all African-American households.

Bob Lord

As we commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.’s 85th birthday, we’ve all come to know his dream. Above all else, he dreamed that one day this nation would rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Yet here’s the grim reality facing black America today:

lord-nightmare-Chris Devers

Chris Devers/Flickr

The net worth of just 400 billionaires, a group that could fit into a high school gym, is on par with the collective wealth of our more than 14 million African- American households. Both groups possess some $2 trillion, about three percent of our national net worth of $77 trillion.

We chose to honor Dr. King by making his birthday a national holiday because of his tireless work for justice. And MLK stood not only for social justice, but for economic justice as well.

Back in 1951, he told his future life partner, Coretta Scott, that a small elite should not “control all the wealth.” “A society based on making all the money you can and ignoring people’s needs, is wrong,” Dr. King explained.

And the “March on Washington” was “for jobs and freedom.” At the time of his assassination in Memphis in 1968, Dr. King was standing with striking sanitation workers in their fight for economic justice.

How would MLK view the Forbes 400 controlling as much wealth as our entire African-American population of about 41 million people? Could that state of affairs co-exist with his dream?

Hardly. At the outset of that speech about his dream, the civil rights leader noted that one century after the Emancipation Proclamation, “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

Dr. King’s dream was as much about economic justice as it was about social justice. Today’s distribution of wealth in America represents his nightmare come true — even with Barack Obama serving as our president.

What derailed the dream? How is it that, 50 years out from MLK’s speech, black America has such a dismally small slice of our nation’s wealth?

Here’s how: In the 1940s through the 1960s, U.S. economic opportunity and upward mobility outside the African-American community were the envy of the world. Back then, economic inequality was plummeting.

While discrimination kept black America mired in poverty, Dr. King watched tens of millions of other Americans climb from humble beginnings to affluence. So, he justifiably believed that if African Americans could break free from the yoke of racial discrimination, they too could share in the American Dream.

It would take a generation or two until most of them made it, but eventually they’d get there.

Soon after the chokehold of racial discrimination on the advancement of blacks finally started to loosen, however, America began its return to the society that existed before Dr. King’s birth, where a small slice of the population lives in opulence while average Americans struggle to get by.

Today, it’s not social injustice, but extreme inequality that constrains economic mobility, not just for black Americans, but all of us. America, once the land of opportunity, now has a level of economic mobility lower than that of almost all other rich countries.

By the time African Americans broke mostly (but not entirely) free from racist constraints on their economic mobility, they were whacked with a new obstacle: the almost equally suffocating injustice of extreme inequality. They’re not the only ones suffering. But because they were locked out of the egalitarian economic progress that took place during Dr. King’s lifetime, they’re disproportionately represented in the group now stuck on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

So here we are, a half-century after Dr. King described his dream, living through a nightmare where 400 ultra-rich Americans control as much wealth as our entire African-American population.

Bob Lord, a veteran tax lawyer and former congressional candidate, practices and blogs in Phoenix, Arizona. He is also an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow.
Distributed via OtherWords (OtherWords.org)

  • Johnny Dollar

    No need for a nightmare. He simply should have told his followers that buying into the stock market might be a good idea.

    • Chris

      Are you serious? Who are you, Marie Antoinette?

      • Johnny Dollar

        The plantation that started to be formed by the government in the 1960s has not helped African Americans or any other people that choose to rely on it. The simple fact is to escape that environment and achieve any form of “economic justice,” one has to learn skills, use them to find work, save and invest. Otherwise, stay on or very nearby the newly created government plantation system.

        • Chris

          Interesting. I admit that the government has victimized large numbers of black people (e.g. those who are incarcerated in large numbers, disproportionate to the crimes committed by black people). But it’s weird that you focus (implicitly) on social welfare programs (I assume that’s what you’re referring to when you say “formed by the government in the 1960s”) as holding down black people but don’t refer either to mass incarceration, or to racism, or to exploitation and discrimination by employers. There is nothing “simple” about the struggles that poor people face in this country–it’s complicated. And suggesting that people just have to make better choices (“learn skills, use them to find work, save and invest”) ignores a whole lot of complicated and entrenched obstacles that poor people face.

          • Johnny Dollar

            Whatever variables you want to introduce are up to you. I was simply taught to listen to my teachers or anybody else that could provide useful information along the way. I have followed that advice as best I could and have achieved a sufficient degree of success that I really don’t care what the 400 richest billionaires have. That is not the benchmark I use to measure quality of life.

          • Chris

            Did any of your teachers ever teach you about racism and how it can hold people back? I take it you are not black. Did any of your teachers ever teach you that being white is an advantage in U.S. society?

            Re: billionaires: I wouldn’t care about what billionaires have if it weren’t that many many people are suffering and disadvantaged through no particular fault of their own, and billionaires often profit from exploiting other people (the Walton family are a great example–wages are so poor at Walmart that many Walmart employees need taxpayer-funded foodstamps to get by. Yet the Walton family, several members of which are among the richest people in the world, get richer and richer from the company that runs on the labor of Walmart workers). Billionaires also have outsized political influence, and use it to push for policies that help them get richer and that hold most people back, e.g. privatizing education, for-profit health insurance instead of single-payer, a declining minimum wage, lax financial regulation, etc.

          • Johnny Dollar

            Now I’ve had enough of your nonsense. I don’t care what color you are and I don’t understand why you inquire about mine. What I will share with you is that some of my earliest bosses right out of high school were black. I was working for them to pay my tuition bills.

            It wasn’t very often, maybe one day prey year, I had to take a day off work to personally attend to business before the start of the school year. Their response when I asked for that day off was the same year after year. Take care to get your education first. Come back to work the next day.

          • Chris

            I am sorry I upset you, but there’s no reason to be uncivil. I don’t agree with what you’re saying, but I wouldn’t call it nonsense. If it were, I wouldn’t bother interacting with you.

            I inquired about what race you are because in my experience white people tend to have the luxury of not thinking about how race affects people; black people (and other non-white people) don’t have that luxury, because they live with and are affected by racism all the time.

            I think that the advice that your teachers and bosses gave you is sound advice–the kind of advice that anyone would give to their children or friends. But I think the kind of advice you would give to a particular person isn’t the same as an answer to a social problem.

            Take this example: “Stay in school and get a job!” That’s sound advice. But suppose a society makes access to education very difficult, and there are high rates of unemployment. Then, when people agitate for social change to try to make it easier for people to have access to education and jobs, it would be callous to say, “But people should just get an education and get a job and work hard in it!” Again, the advice is sensible enough at an individual level, but it’s not addressing the underlying problem that people are agitating about: the barriers to education and the scarcity of jobs.

            This isn’t just an analogy: black people in essence live in a different society from white people–one where access to education and jobs is more difficult, takes harder work, because of racism (individual–people with racist attitudes–and structural–the ways that society is set up that make things worse for non-white people).

            That was my glib point at the very beginning: your advice to black people that they should have invested in the stock market if they didn’t want to be poor is as removed from reality as Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake” remark. Very few people have any savings whatsoever, black people least of all (proportionately, I mean–of course there are some black people who have savings, including some very rich ones–I mean the majority). So to say “they should have saved and invested” is like “let them eat cake.”

          • Johnny Dollar

            I think you should revisit my remark at the very beginning you are now twisting out of context. I had no advice whatever specific to black people or any other ethnic group. I simply referred to followers of MLK. I am old enough to have seen live coverage of some of his work at the time. It was not my understanding then or now that if you were poor or disadvantaged that what color you were made any difference. Perhaps you know him better than I do.

          • Chris

            You said, in response to the author’s point about ongoing poverty of black people, that Dr. King should have told his followers that “buying into the stock market would be a good idea” with the suggestion that now we wouldn’t be seeing what King would regard as a nightmare (continuing poverty all these years after the Civil Rights Movement), but (you implied) black people would be wealthy, or no worse off than white people. Or at least that’s how I interpreted what you said. King led a movement for civil rights for black people in the United States. He advocated nonviolent resistance to racism. Other (earlier) black leaders had preached “racial uplift” through individual effort, starting businesses, etc. That approach didn’t get black people very far, because racism was so pervasive. On the other hand, King’s approach itself had mixed results. But King certainly thought that if you were poor or disadvantaged, your color made a difference. But he also thought the white ruling class used racism to divide poor blacks and poor whites. So it’s complicated, as I said above. But advocating individual effort to overcome poverty (for either blacks or whites) doesn’t seem to acknowledge the real barriers that poor people, especially black poor people, face.

            If you want to learn more about what King actually said and wrote, you might start with his essay “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html). If you haven’t read it, you might be surprised by his analysis and it might help you see why individual effort isn’t a solution to poverty for black people as a group.

          • Johnny Dollar

            Sorry, but my patience regarding racial debate put forth by others has come to an end. It’s time to go to work on the eighth race at Charles Town racetrack tonight. It’s called the Appalachian Handicap. Does that have enough poor connotations?

            I don’t know who I’ll be competing against. They could be black, white, asian, hispanic, indian, rich, poor, or any combination thereof. All I know is in about an hour we are going to pool our money in the track’s account and see who knows the most about our four legged friends tonight. Bye.

          • Chris

            Enjoy yourself. My sister and her husband live near Beckley. I hope you weren’t affected by the chemical spill.

          • Johnny Dollar

            Thanks for the good wishes, but before I got through very much work I did realize racing has been cancelled tonight due to crummy weather out east. Oh well.

            I have never watched what they call a “reality TV” show before. That is about to change in less than half an hour. A series called Horseplayers on the Esquire channel is going to get my attention for the next ten weeks. I’m hoping that whoever they are they can teach me a few new things too. All my life has been spent seeking good new advice. Hopefully I learn something new from this show.

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  • Sparkle

    Discrimination of African Americans is alive and well. With a 795 FICO score and a 7,500 monthly income with no consumer debt, I have been turned down on a refinance of $168,000 mortgage by three different banks. Yes, I am a black single female who is doing very well and only wanted a lower interest rate. Jim Crow is alive and well.