In April 1968, Martin Luther King delivered a speech in support of the striking black sanitation workers in Memphis, called "I've Been to the Mountaintop." The next day, he was assassinated. Just over a week later, the workers got their raise and their union.
"MLK is lauded as the man who launched the assault on Jim Crowe America," says Ralph Richard Banks, a professor at Stanford Law School, who specializes in African American issues. "But he also knew the key issue was economic inequality, and that the lack of good jobs undermined progress."
The lack of good jobs is undermining the progress of many people these days, but black Americans are still the worst hit. During the troubled years between 2005 and 2009, the average median household wealth dropped by 16 percent for white households, but by 53 percent for blacks, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of government data. The median wealth of white households is now 20 times that of black households. A quarter century ago, it was 12 times.
The differences are less vast when you look solely at household income, but signs of progress are slim. In 1975, the average black household took home 60 percent of what the average white one did, compared to 58 percent in 2010.
Black unemployment has been roughly double that of whites since the government began tracking it in 1972. But this fact disguises two opposing trends. Things have been getting much better for black women, and much worse for black men. At the end of 2011, the unemployment rate for whites was 7.5 percent. For black women it was 13.9 percent, and for black men it was 15.7 percent.
"The economy has shifted in ways that reward people who have advanced education," says Banks. For the class of 2003-4, over half of black boys failed to finish high school in four years, as did 40 percent of black girls, according to the EPE Research Center. These days, twice as many black women than black men are getting bachelor's degrees.
"The educational gap between black men and black women has never been greater," says Banks.
The recession also demolished industries that have long been great employers of black men, like construction, manufacturing, and industrial jobs. Sectors that have attracted black women, like educational and health services, were less badly hit, and are more poised to rebound.
In the last year, however, black women were battered harder than their male peers. Between 2005 and 2007, 23 percent of black women and 18 percent of black men were employed in the relatively high-wage public sector, which has been shedding swaths of jobs, and peeling back the economic gains many middle class black Americans had made over the last few decades.
"I may not get there with you," Martin Luther King said to that gathering of strikers in Memphis. "But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promise land."
We're not in that promise land yet, and in many ways the path towards it is more twisted now than ever. "When you have some obviously discriminatory law, it's in some sense easy to know what to do. You have to get rid of that law," says Banks. "But is education the civil rights issue of the 21st century? Yes, it's hard to argue with that."
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