Fifty years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, black Americans are, by one measure, no closer to his vision of economic opportunity than they were back in that era.
Speaking Wednesday at the same Lincoln Memorial venue where Dr. King stood, President Obama pointed to lingering economic disparities as evidence that the dream of that 1963 march is unfulfilled.
"They were there seeking jobs as well as justice, not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity," the president said.
Unemployment for black Americans stands at 12.6 percent as of July, almost twice the 6.6 percent jobless rate seen by whites.
Comparable numbers from the Labor Department aren’t available going back to 1963, when King stood at a microphone on the National Mall in Washington. In 1972, though, that gap was essentially the same: Unemployment for blacks was double that for whites.
Over the intervening years, the divide has widened and narrowed at times but has largely hovered near that level. For example, the African-American jobless rate was precisely double that for whites during this year’s second quarter, and during portions of 2004, 2001, 1991, 1982, and 1976.
King’s speech, and the wider march to which he spoke was a movement focused on jobs as well as civil rights. It was a "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." And a major introductory chord of the speech was framed in the language of economics.
“In a sense, we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check,” King said. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ ”
He added: “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”
Of course, the jobless-rate gap is just one measure of economic progress. But it’s an important one, given the central role that employment plays in economic opportunity.
In part, the racial gap in employment also reflects a gap in education.
Unemployment is far higher today among less-educated Americans – of whatever race – than among those who have studied beyond high school.
One study by the Schott Foundation for Public Education, for example, notes a 52 percent high school graduation rate for black males, 26 percentage points lower than for white males. At current rates of progress, "it would take another 50 years to close the graduation gap between black males and their white male counterparts," the report concludes.
“When black males are given access to schools and resources similar to those given to white males, their performance levels improve,” the foundation said in a 2008 report, which noted that in some states the graduation gap is minimal.
Jared Bernstein, a former Obama administration economist, argues that one of the best ways to lift opportunities for blacks is to strengthen the overall economy. People of all races, in the current climate, have fewer job options than they would in a faster-growth environment.
“The last time this economy was operating with truly tight labor markets, back in the latter 1990s, I was quite struck by the gains made by African-Americans, both in absolute terms and relative to whites,” Mr. Bernstein writes in a recent blog post.