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MLK's Dream Drained

New America Media, Commentary, Brian Miller Posted: Jan 18, 2010

State of the World: DrainedMartin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of a society worthy of the principle in its founding declaration that all men are created equal. But he did not live in such a society, and he did not act as if he did. His lifes work was dedicated to bringing the nation closer to that dream. While we have made progress, the dream remains elusive.

Last year, after Barack Obamas historic election, many pundits declared that the victory had ushered in a new post-racial era. But just as the civil rights victories of the 1950s and 60s did not end racism, the election of our first African American president does not create a post-racial society.

During his first year in office, President Obama, along with Congress, has governed as though the myth of a post-racial America were true. Faced with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, both Congress and the president have pursued universal, broad-spectrum solutions designed to lift up all Americans.

But a post-racial America and colorblind policies are ideas that cant stand up to the facts of persistent, and even growing, racial economic disparities.

As detailed in the newly released "State of The Dream 2010: Drained" report, racial economic inequities have worsened over the last year as people of color have taken the brunt of layoffs from this Great Recession. The unemployment rate for blacks jumped 4.3 percent to the devastating height of 16.2 percent, while the white unemployment rate stands at 9 percent, up only 2.4 percent by comparison from a year earlier. And African Americans who are employed still earn less than their white counterparts in similar jobs.

Racial disparities of wealth are even more persistent and severe than income and employment disparities because unlike most jobs, wealth can be passed from one generation to the next. So, families and communities that are wealthy tend to stay that way, and those who are not wealthy tend to stay that way, too, generation after generation.

Because African Americans hold only 10 cents to every dollar of white net wealth, they are less able to cope with the loss of income and jobs that have come with the Great Recession. Exacerbating the problem, most of the wealth that is held by African Americans is held in the form of housing that has collapsed in value due to the foreclosure crisis and the predatory lending that fueled it.

Its important that we get the recovery right. The Great Recession began with the collapse of the predatory subprime mortgage market. Our immediate policy response was to bail out the banks under the Toxic Asset Relief Program. This did shore up their profits and ensured the outlandish bonuses of executives, but it failed to bring relief to where it is needed most.

As more predatory and adjustable rate mortgages reset to higher payments and joblessness increases over the coming year, more families will be forced into foreclosure. Foreclosed properties bring down the value of homes near them, further reducing the wealth in communities of color where foreclosure rates are the highest. Many homeowners, regardless of being current on their loan payments, are left owing more on their mortgage than their home is worth.

Last years stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, certainly did more to shore up the broader economy than the bank bailout. It did not, however, effectively reach the communities most in need of recovery and reinvestment. Less stimulus funding has gone to areas with higher rates of unemployment than to areas with more jobs. And the sectors that have benefited most from stimulus money are industries that have traditionally not been major sources of African American employment.

MLKs dream of racial equality cannot be realized until the economic divide between races is addressed. The Great Recession and our policy responses to it have proven once again that we cannot address racial inequity by ignoring it. With colorblind policies, the people in the worst economic position stay that way.

The "State of the Dream" report recommends targeted solutions to end the foreclosure crisis, to bring jobs to where they are needed most, and to bring opportunity where it is most lacking. These recommendations will address the particular plight of African Americans. Proponents of a post-racial or colorblind society will no doubt be pleased that these solutions will also raise up all poor and working class families regardless of race.

Brian Miller is executive director of United for a Fair Economy (UFE), a national non-profit organization working to promote more broadly shared prosperity and to end extreme inequalities of wealth and income. Miller is co-author of UFEs new report, along with Ajamu Dillahunt, Mike Prokosch, Jeannette Huezo, and Dedrick Muhammad, entitled "State of the Dream 2010: Drained Jobless and Foreclosed in Communities of Color," available on-line at http://www.faireconomy.org/dream/

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