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Wake Up America … Dream Not Yet Fully Realized

August 26, 2011

Forty-eight years ago, an iconic speech was delivered in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, a speech enjoining Americans to hope for and create a truly integrated society of racial equality. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech stands with the great orations of our time as a stalwart testimony to the greatest civil rights battle the United States has faced since the abolition of slavery.

Nearly 50 years after its delivery, Dr. King’s speech yet resounds in our ears and will for generations to come, championing a vision of fairness, respect and brotherhood. For all the strides taken towards racial justice and equality in the speech’s aftermath, however, our nation is still plagued by many of the issues King condemned, for his dream remains to be fully realized. Then, racial injustice was widely acknowledged and now there is outright racial denial.

Although the “manacles of segregation” and “chains of discrimination” to which Dr. King alluded have slightly corroded, they still fetter minorities of America. Gone, according to some, are the blatant affronts on civil rights such as Jim Crow laws. But, they have only been replaced with more modern forms of de facto segregation and discrimination and other “proxies” for race. Indeed, one needs only to examine the subprime housing collapse, the financial crisis, disparities in education, employment and the criminal justice system to understand the extent to which racial discrimination is still alive and pervasive in our nation.

In 1963, Dr. King and a crowd of over 200,000 marched on Washington to demand that the promise by the United States to guarantee equality for all be fulfilled. However, the check they had come to redeem had bounced. As Dr. King said, “America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.” The unalienable rights laid out in the Constitution did not cross the color line and it took nearly a year for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to pass, for the first time legally articulating life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans.

It is now 2011. Segregation was legally banned years ago and we as a nation have entered into a new era of understanding and acceptance in some areas. While the last vestiges of the Jim Crow laws have receded into memories and history books for some, Dr. King would be proud to see, it is not an uncommon sight to see little boys and girls of every race, creed, and ethnicity joining hands in friendship and scholarship both. Yet, he would be disappointed by the grim specter of discrimination which remains, including the high levels of racial segregation in K-12 education and racial hostility inherent in the proliferation of voter suppression and anti-immigrant laws across the nation. We need to look no further than our own neighborhoods to see the dismal impact.

The subprime housing collapse stands as a stark testament to the de facto discrimination plaguing this country. Countless borrowers, including all races and incomes, were wrongfully steered into onerous subprime loans and many have subsequently slipped into foreclosure. After the collapse of the housing bubble, those who offered deceptive loans were and are often the same people luring desperate homeowners into loan modification scams, cheating them out of millions of dollars. Since the launch of the Lawyers’ Committee’s Loan Modification Network’s database in February 2010, homeowners have filed nearly 16,000 scam complaints totaling over $40 million in lost money.

The inequalities plaguing America today extend beyond discriminatory housing and lending, however. Segregation in schools is at an all-time high since the 60’s, particularly in metropolitan public schools. Upper-level corporate positions and corporate boards are still overwhelmingly dominated by white males. Minorities enjoy limited mobility, socially, economically, and even physically as neighborhoods are increasingly defined by their racial composition. There is still much work to be done.

Unemployment rates remain in the double digits for minorities with Blacks at 15.9 percent and Hispanics at 11.3 percent, compared to Whites at 8.1 percent. For Black youth, the unemployment rate stands at 39.2 percent compared to 23 percent for White teenagers.

Failure to adequately address these disparities, along with others such as the lack of equitable educational opportunities will undoubtedly contribute to the ongoing shrinkage of the Black middle class and striking loss of wealth. As noted in a recent Pew Research Center analysis, from 2005 to 2009, inflation-adjusted median household wealth fell 66 percent among Hispanics and 53 percent among Blacks compared with a 16 percent decline among whites.

In 2009, the typical white household had 20 times more wealth ($113,149) than the typical Black household ($5,677) and 18 times more than the typical Hispanic household ($6,325). These racial wealth gaps, nearly twice the size of prevailing ratios for the two decades preceding the Great Recession is quite disturbing!

The 48th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” could not come at a more appropriate time for reflection. With our nation facing an immense credit default just weeks ago and Dr. King’s words ringing freshly again in our ears, it is important to remember that we must never allow there to be “insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity” in America. As individuals, we must do our fair share, as President Obama urged in the debt ceiling compromise, to ensure these funds will never run out.

The immense tragedy of federal and state budget cuts are that they threaten to tear asunder the social compact for the protection of our most vulnerable citizens while also destroying the social advancement network that has undergirded racial progress.

Forty-eight years ago, a brilliant man spoke of his dream to the masses. As a nation, however, we need to wake up and realize it.

Barbara Arnwine is executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Lawyers’ Committee Communications and Development intern Luke Bowe contributed to this column.


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