By Robert Reich
I remember. Do you? Sixty years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, seeking to focus the nation’s attention on civil rights and jobs.
I was a high school junior, watching the event from afar on TV. I was mesmerized by the power of King’s oratory, overcome by his grace and hope.
One of my mother’s friends, visiting at the time, called Dr. King a “troublemaker.” That was the last I ever saw of her.
He was a troublemaker, in the sense that the late civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis used the term: He was a maker of “good trouble.”
Dr. King’s speech, as well as the March on Washington, focused on economic discrimination and the lack of decent jobs for Black Americans. The civil rights leaders who organized the events made sure to include white labor organizer Walter Reuther, the head of the United Auto Workers.
Today, 60 years later, I can’t resist asking: How much progress has been made since then?
Poverty rates for Black Americans have fallen over the past 60 years. According to the latest data, a smaller proportion of Black people live in poverty than ever before. The Black poverty rate is 18.8 percent — about half what it was in 1966 — but still high in comparison to other races.
The average income of Black households, after growing through the 1960s and 1970s, seemed to hit a ceiling. It is now around 65 percent of that of white households, where it’s been for some 40 years.
The typical Black household now has around $24,000 in savings, investments, home equity, and other elements of wealth. The typical white household, around $189,000. If anything, the racial wealth gap has worsened.
Mortality rates are far higher among Black women than white women, including deaths in childbirth. Police brutality against Black people continues. Hate crimes against Black people continue. Black children are disproportionately hurt or killed by gun violence.
Why hasn’t more progress been made? One reason has to do with the economic stagnation of the white working class and the shrinkage of the American middle class, especially over the last four decades.
It’s been hard for poor Black people to move up the ladder when so many of the lower rungs on that ladder are already occupied and the middle rungs are missing.
Many white Americans in the bottom half are barely holding on — working paycheck to paycheck, fearing they could fall backward at any time, frustrated that their children aren’t doing better than they did at a comparable age.
Meanwhile, white people at or near the top have gained so much wealth they’ve been able to effectively secede from the rest of America into wealthy enclaves. They don’t any longer see the struggles of the bottom half. Being rich in America today means not coming across anyone who isn’t.
All of this has encouraged Republican leaders over the last several decades to use racial “dog whistles” to court the white working class. It’s prompted recent Republican “culture warriors” to attack diversity, equity, and inclusion and to roll back efforts to give schoolchildren honest accounts of the nation’s history of racism.
And it’s encouraged Republican presidents to appoint Supreme Court justices who have eviscerated the 1965 Voting Rights Act — the crowning achievement of the Civil Rights Movement — thereby allowing restrictive voting laws in states with long-standing histories of racial discrimination. Republican appointees to the court have also barred the use of affirmative action in higher education.
Dr. King understood that Black Americans could not get ahead if white Americans could not get ahead and vice versa. The destinies of lower-wage white and Black Americans were inextricably connected. As he said sixty years ago today, “many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”
With wealth and power now more concentrated at the top of America than at any time in the last 60 years, the only way the bottom half can advance is if the poor and working class join together with what’s left of the middle class in a multiracial, multiethnic political coalition. That prospect scares the American oligarchy more than anything.
This article was published by Robert Reich’s Substack