Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It’s a day for celebrating the success of that man, and the civil rights movement in general, but also one for reflecting on where we are today, how we’ve lived up to the aspirations of that movement, and where we can go from here.
So where have we gone right in the almost 45 years since the death of Martin Luther King Jr.? Some of the strides are obvious, and will be pointed out again and again. America is currently presided over by its first Black President (for better or for worse) there’s a Black Supreme Court Justice, and a Hispanic Justice.
It is vital not to get too far ahead of ourselves, however. There was a Black Justice nominated to the Supreme Court before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Much of the increase in Hispanic representation is due to an increase in Hispanic population. Much of the legal equality of opportunity has been achieved, but the economic equality of opportunity has not.
Martin Luther King Jr., in his most famous speech, declared that he and those following him had come to Washington to “cash a check,” that America had “defaulted on this promissory note” it had written to its people. In a time when American is coming closer to defaulting on real promissory notes than at perhaps any time in its history, the metaphor should hit home.
It is economic pressures rather than legal ones that press upon minorities in today’s world, heavier than any other. That is not to say that all of the country’s traditional problems with legal inequality have been solved.
Martin Luther King Jr. had “a dream that one day my four little children… will be judged… by the content of their character.” Is that the America of 2013? It surely is not, but it is much closer than it has been ever before. The legal code is not used to oppress minorities as it once was, but the job is certainly not finished. The promise of “post racial America” asserted by so many in the wake of Barack Obama’s 2008 election.
It is the economic system that now manages most of the discrimination. 20010 Census data shows that while 15.1% of Americans lives below the poverty line, 27.4% of Blacks did. Slightly less than 27% of Hispanics lived below the poverty line.
The conversation that Americans need to have in the twenty first century is how to deal with the structural economic problems that are causing those racial inequalities. If the market is working properly, there should not be any substantive difference in racial poverty levels. the market is not working properly.
Martin Luther King Jr. would no doubt be a part of this conversation if he were around today. Martin Luther King Jr., fought for inequality, paradoxically through non-violent means. In his era, the tools of inequality were violent, today they are passive. That makes the conversation more difficult to enunciate but no less beneficial to have.