The continuing struggle for equality

Posted: Jan 21, 2004 12:00 AM

In the midst of a civil upheaval that threatened to erode the very structure that keeps us huddled together as a society, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of love and the need to overcome oppression without resorting to oppression. He spoke of ". a dream that one day this nation will rise up . (and) hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

So how stands this country now, 36 years after Dr. King gave his life for his dream?

In countless ways the problem of racism in America has improved. For example, much of society now accepts that black children ought to think, learn and share ideas in the same classrooms as white children. There is a logical progression - a better education leads to future possibilities and personal empowerment.

Racism today isn't so much about skin color as it is about cultural patterns wrought by slavery. It is about cultural division sewn so deeply into our social fabric, for so long, that white Americans have trouble imagining themselves as the "other" skin color. This elitism is poisonous because it helps maintain social hierarchies and leads white employers to make assumptions about minority workers, i.e., how a minority worker speaks means their problem-solving skills, communication skills and work ethic are deficient.

As long as hierarchies exist, the power structure will continue to make these misguided assumptions. I suspect that's why black Americans continue to lag far behind the average white, non-Hispanic family in terms of average per capita income. According to statistics from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, in 1965, black families earned on average 55 percent of what white families made. Today, black families earn 56 percent of what white families make. So, enough talk about how black Americans are making more than ever. The bottom line is that they're still at the back of the bus. The bus may have picked up speed, but the location of their seats hasn't changed. Narrowing this racial economic gap should be one of the most important goals of the civil rights movement. Without equality of employment, salary and wealth, there can be no social equality.

This problem is exacerbated by the eroding family structure in black America and the corresponding increase in violent crime. The statistics are frightening: Young black males, who constitute less than 3 percent of the total population, are responsible for half of this country's violent crime. According to Justice Department statistics, in 1992, the violent crime rate for black males was nearly 10 times the average for white males the same age. Violence is also eroding the black family. Forty-five percent of all spousal homicides in this country are attributed to blacks, despite the fact that they represent only 13 percent of the population. One national study (Hampton, R.L., Gelles, R.J., and Harrop, J.W. 1989. "Is Violence Increasing?" A comparison of 1975 and 1985 national survey rates. J. Marriage Family 51: 969-980.) reported that "severe parent-to-child violence was 114 percent greater in black families than in white families. At the same time, out of wedlock births for black Americans has increased nearly sixfold over the last 35 years. As the nuclear family disintegrates, so do our communities. As author and political science professor, James Clark observed, "as the 20th century comes to a close, more black males will be incarcerated in prison than go to college."

There are many reasons for these self-inflicted wounds - deteriorating family values, the failure of government housing programs, overcrowding in poor urban centers, under-funded public schools and an inner-city subculture that glorifies violence and misogyny and derides conventional family values. One thing is clear, though, this must change if we are to achieve Dr. King's dream of equality.

That means pushing civil rights issues into the mainstream. It also means bettering ourselves by eschewing racial quotas or other policies that encourage minorities to embrace victim status.

We don't need more entitlement programs that dispense money to the underprivileged like some government-subsidized tranquilizer. We need to confront the real problems threatening our communities. We will achieve Dr. King's dream not with quotas and affirmative action, but with the determination to face those social conditions that truly underlie inequality - eroding family life, disintegration of moral character and the devaluation of human life.