If one reflects during this current Black History Month on the status of social justice issues that impact not only our minority community but our whole society, it is sadly apparent that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Today, income inequality and voter suppression are among the prominent issues of concern to not only the minority community but anyone who takes our democratic commitment to equal rights seriously.
We recall that the first civil rights march on Washington in 1963 was advertised as the Poor People’s March. The assembly of a half million people on the National Mall not only inspired those who listened to Martin Luther King’s eloquence, but no doubt prompted the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the landmark Civil Rights Law of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This legislation aimed to end discrimination in employment, public accommodations and access to voting.
When King was assassinated on April 8, 1968, he was in Memphis to support the black sanitation workers who were, despite the Equal Pay Act, discriminated against in wages and working conditions. King and his associates in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were also planning another Poor People’s Campaign and March on Washington to demand jobs, health care and decent housing. He had already seen that the War on Poverty, which President Johnson had promised, was abandoned in the pursuit of widening what was to be a disastrous war in Vietnam.
The Poor People’s campaign went forward after King’s death but failed to ignite the needed support in an election year that swept Richard Nixon into office.
The need to address poverty remains especially critical today. During the recent economic recession, unemployment was general and widespread. However, despite antidiscrimination legislation, there continues to be a huge gap between white and minority unemployment. The 2010 Census showed that 9.9 percent of all Hispanic whites live in poverty; for Hispanics, the rate is 26.6 percent; and for blacks, 27.4.
The statistics on poverty from the last census are alarming as more whites, as well as blacks, are sliding into poverty: 49.1 million people fell below the poverty line, which arbitrarily sets the poverty level of $11,000 for an individual, $15,000 for a single mother and child, and $23,000 for a family of four. Another 51 million people with incomes from $11,000 to $17,000 are said to be the “near poor.”
That 100 million of us live in or at the edge of poverty and that one in five children live in actual poverty is a disgrace for the richest country in the world. Higher poverty rates in the minority community are traceable to the inequalities that still prevail: high unemployment among young black males, which stems from a lack of quality educational opportunity, early exposure to drug culture and high rates of incarceration.
Incarceration in the U.S. is a scandal. Today, the U.S., with only 5 percent of the world’s population, incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Of the 2.3 million people incarcerated, 1 million are African-American. African-Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. Five times as many whites use drugs as African-Americans, yet the latter are sent to prison at 10 times the rate for whites.
The Sentencing Project points out that African-Americans, on average, serve almost as much time for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months). Because so many are handicapped by a prison record for even nonviolent crimes, they cannot help support their families. This means more impoverished households.
Yes, King would no doubt be active in seeking equal justice in the criminal courts as a step toward addressing income inequality. President Obama recently weighed in on the injustice of income inequality, but he can probably do little to address it besides raising the minimum wage for federal employees, as long as the House majority sees its role as thwarting every presidential initiative offered.
I am saddened that so much of the current hostility toward the president stems from who he is. In a recent interview, former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (former Republican, now Democrat) said that he believed the main reason he lost his post was a widely circulated picture of him embracing Obama. He noted that that he had never seen such personal “vitriol” directed at past presidents who had stirred up partisan dissent.
And it is not only in the South that acceptance of a black president is still more than a little problematic. As a senior citizen, I am embarrassed that so much of the vitriol noted by Crist comes from that segment of the population. A recent Readers’ Forum letter from a self-identified older reader was filled with vitriolic prejudice toward the president and ended by saying the writer “can’t stand the sight of the man, and even less his wife.”
I’m pretty sure that what he can’t stand to see is a person of color at the helm of our country. I do believe that not all of us older folks are that hopeless. And there seems to be more openness to diversity and equality in the younger generations. Let us hope so.
Gladys M. Clifton, Ph.D., is retired after 20 years in the Humanities Division at Pitt-Johnstown. She is second vice president of Johnstown branch, NAACP. For 11 years, she was host of the cable-TV program “NAACP Perspectives.”