Nation & World

King died 50 years ago fighting against economic injustice. Data show the issue still persists.

An attendee is seen during a march and rally on the National Mall to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, U.S., April 4, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Thayer
An attendee is seen during a march and rally on the National Mall to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, U.S., April 4, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

Fifty years ago today, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, where he was supporting African-American sanitation workers after the public works department refused to compensate the families of two men who died on the job.

For as much attention as King receives for fighting against racial injustice, he spent much of his life speaking out against economic inequality - an issue that is still at the center of many of today’s political conversations.

Yet 50 years after the Kerner Commission delivered a report to President Lyndon B. Johnson on the unrest in African-American communities, recent data show much of what King fought to dismantle remains in place. An Economic Policy Institute report released in February found:

“With respect to homeownership, unemployment, and incarceration, America has failed to deliver any progress for African Americans over the last five decades. In these areas, their situation has either failed to improve relative to whites or has worsened.

“In 2017 the black unemployment rate was 7.5 percent, up from 6.7 percent in 1968, and is still roughly twice the white unemployment rate. In 2015, the black homeownership rate was just over 40 percent, virtually unchanged since 1968, and trailing a full 30 points behind the white homeownership rate, which saw modest gains over the same period. And the share of African Americans in prison or jail almost tripled between 1968 and 2016 and is currently more than six times the white incarceration rate.”

Another report from the EPI showed the wage gap between blacks and whites is the worst it has been in nearly four decades.

“Changes in unobservable factors - such as racial wage discrimination, racial differences in unobserved or unmeasured skills, or racial differences in labor force attachment of less-skilled men due to incarceration - along with weakened support to fight labor market discrimination continue to be the leading factors for explaining past and now the recent deterioration in the economic position of many African Americans.”

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Much attention was paid to the economic anxieties of Donald Trump supporters during the 2016 election, especially the white working-class. Most black voters who come from a working-class backgrounds were drawn to Hillary Clinton’s economic message.

The economy continues to be a major concern for black Americans due to the community’s economic woes.

African Americans have the highest poverty rate - 27 percent - despite being only about 12 percent of the population, according to the State of Working America report. The poverty rate of white Americans is less than 10 percent.

According to public policy organization Demos, the economy remains a major priority for black voters with nearly one in four saying it is the most important problem facing the country today. Nearly six in 10 blacks said the absence of good jobs is a big problem in their communities.

Perhaps this was something Trump was aware of when he promised to improve black voters’ communities. The black unemployment rate reached record lows during Trump’s presidency, a fact he is quick to note when he is accused of ignoring the concerns of African Americans.

Despite improvements, there remains a gap between the quality of life of black and white Americans - and that is an issue King championed half a century ago years after activists before him brought the issue into the national conversation.

Theodore Johnson, senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, wrote for The Washington Post about why black are often loyal Democrats where they are so ideologically diverse:

“By the mid-1930s, blacks voted increasingly for Democrats - even though their party identification didn’t change - because of the Democratic Party’s progressive economic and civil rights policies, such as the extension of New Deal programs to blacks and the desegregation of the military in the late 1940s.

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“Despite this history, there is still no clean alignment between how blacks describe their political ideology and which candidates they vote for. As recently as 2012, studies show that 47 percent of blacks identify as liberal and 45 percent as conservative, but 93 percent voted for the reelection of Barack Obama.”

At one point, this suggested there could be an opportunity for black voters to be drawn to the GOP’s economic message. Under Trump, that seems unlikely. In addition to the GOP losing black voters in 2016, it has lost black voters in the local races since then that have been viewed as a referendum on Trump,

Despite African Americans traditionally voting Democratic, some have accused Democrats of taking black voters for granted, which is part of the reason black voter turnout in 2016 was lower than previous elections. The question many are asking now is whether lawmakers move forward in making a reality of King’s dream of economic equality for working class people of color.

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