By Barbara R. Arnwine
As we reflect on Martin Luther King Day, many of us remember his famous and stirring "I Have A Dream Speech." This speech is memorialized as the centerpiece of the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," which spoke of the twin evils of racial discrimination and economic deprivation that prevailed because of the defaulted promissory note that stipulated equality for all.
In an earlier speech in Detroit (1963), Dr. King linked the "twin evils" stating that "I have a dream this afternoon that one day right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere their money will carry them and they will be able to get a job." Then and now the civil rights movement is about much more than ending racial discrimination, a major tenet of the movement has been also advocating for economic justice and opportunities for all people.
Until there is equal access to economic opportunities for all Americans, our nation cannot call itself a post racial society. The modern form of racial discrimination is realized through an economic proxy. We find evidence of this in the fiscal cliff compromise, which was hard fought and difficult to reach. The devastating implications for African Americans and other economically vulnerable racial minorities of the shredding of the social safety network cannot be ignored. The fruition of the December 2012 compromise allowed racial minorities to avoid a compound of injustice and discrimination that could have manifested without a decision.
According to the Congressional Budget Office’s August 2012 report, "An Update to the Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2012 to 2022 Report", the cuts could have sent the entire country into another recession. As we have learned from the Great Recession, racial minorities are disproportionately impacted by downturns in the economy. In 2001, nearly 65 percent of White adults and just over 60 percent of Black adults were employed. The Great Recession caused the share of Black working adults to slide down to 52 percent.
Throughout the recession, the unemployment rate for African Americans continued to rise in the double digits, with the December 2012 unemployment rate at 14 percent for African Americans, while it was only 6.9 percent for Whites. Even though racial minorities can count this fiscal cliff compromise as a win, the political showdowns surrounding the compromise have fostered a breeding ground of animosity that may preview continual struggles ahead.
Debates in coming months concerning spending cuts and raising the nation’s limit on borrowing are raising legitimate concerns in minority communities. Those who opposed the compromise and were against raising taxes on the wealthy have vowed to seek significant cuts in government benefit programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which could potentially have a disparate impact on minorities and low-income families.
Many of Dr. King’s remarks are almost prescient of today’s economic issues. His remark that "God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous wealth while others live in abject deadening poverty" resonates soundly with the fiscal cliff compromise to tax wealthy Americans at a higher rate in order to supplant the harrowing growth of the minority poverty rate, which had previously been narrowed prior to the recession.
Decisions in any upcoming fiscal debates should not create an undue burden on those in our country who are already struggling to survive economically. It is hard to envision the dream of equality manifesting without an equal economic playing field.
Barbara R. Arnwine is president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.