Dr. King’s Bold Case for Economics
By Matthew C. Whitaker
NNPA Guest Columnist
Black History Month is over, but we should move past the standardized foci and platitudes that mark our commemoration. We have a history that challenges us to address vestiges of intolerance and redress the inequality that still undermines African American upward mobility throughout the year.
Since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. seems to be the safe and acceptable embodiment of the best of Black history to those who are wary of more “radical” elements, let us marry King’s visionary brilliance with his practical, bolder prescriptions for racial equality. King was more than a transformative Black preacher. He was a social architect who demanded specific actions to move Black people from the back of the bus to the boardroom. The legendary March on Washington in 1963, for example, was not merely an interracial love-in. It was a call for action. Indeed, it was a “March for Jobs and Freedom,” with an emphasis on jobs and the financial independence that comes with economic opportunity at every level.
In 1968, as King delivered one of his last speeches, he passionately addressed America’s failure to acknowledge White privilege and redress the lack of commiserate economic opportunity for Black people.
“At the very same time that America refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant it was willing to undergird its White peasants from Europe with an economic floor. But not only did they give them and, they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms. Not only that, today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm, and they are the very people telling the Black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And this is what we are faced with, and this is the reality. Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign, we are coming to get our check.”
This is not the kumbaya King that we are bombarded with every Black History Month. This is King drawing attention to the history of affirmative action for White people and the need for Black people to have seats at the economic table at every level.
King argued that “practical racists affirm the existence of racism with their lips, and deny the existence of racism with their lives and their actions. They have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.” His “practical racism” can be used as a prism through which racial disparities in the workplace, earnings, and wealth can be illuminated and corrected. Indeed, corporate leaders often affirm the existence of racial inequality and disparity in their offices with their words, and reject their existence in their hiring, promotions, management, and board appointments patterns. The consequences of which include low morale, decreased productivity and attrition, in addition to lost creativity, innovation, intellectually diversity, and goodwill with the larger Black community, whose purchasing power will top $1.1 trillion dollars by the end of this year.
King was very concerned about economic inequality. Indeed, jobs, upward mobility, and access to the highest levels of influence within the business world, are as crucial to establishing racial parity as the civil rights that King fought and died for. In 2014, however, journalist Michael W. Chapman wrote that the Black American unemployment rate was 11.4 percent, more than twice the 5.3 percent rate for White Americans.
Furthermore, according to sociologist G. William Domhoff, nearly 50 years since King’s assassination, “American wealth is highly concentrated in a relatively few [predominantly White] hands. As of 2010, 20 percent of the people owned a remarkable 89 percent, leaving only 11 percent of the wealth for the bottom 80 percent.”
The Pew Research Center noted that by 2013 “The wealth of White households was 13 times the median wealth of Black households” and expanding.
In the aftermath of Black History Month, let us not only bask in stories of African American heroism, framed by King’s faith and soaring oratory, let us also remember his calls for financial manifestations of our commitment to equality and opportunity.
Matthew C. Whitaker is ASU Foundation professor of history and Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, in the College of Letters and Sciences, at Arizona State University. He is also the owner and CEO of The Whitaker Group, L.L.C., an equity and inclusion, cultural competency, and human relations consulting firm. He can be followed on Twitter at @Dr_Whitaker. The views and opinions expressed by the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, and official policies of Arizona State University.