April 4 was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of MLK. It’s appropriate that we take time to assess what has changed about race in America over the last 50 years.
The most influential woman in America is a billionaire sista, Oprah Winfrey, and in 2008 America elected a brotha, Barak Obama, as POTUS. Both of these we would been have unimaginable 50 years ago.
But we shouldn’t confuse change with progress. Change is something becoming or being made different, but progress is movement toward an improved or more developed state. Focusing on progress is the key to our well being. Change is about the individual; progress is about the community. The question is not whether America has changed, but whether America has made progress.
What do we use as a baseline to measure how much or how little progress we’ve made during the last half-century? The Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, aka the Kerner Commission, was released on February 29, 1968, a little more than a month before King’s assassination.
Commissioned by President Lyndon Johnson to determine the causes of the violent urban rebellions of the mid-sixties, the Kerner Commission was a unique moment in American history. It’s the only time white America (only two of its 11 members were black) has ever looked in the mirror and had an honest conversation with itself about race. And here’s what it concluded: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”
But it went much further. A major finding of the Kerner Commission was that black frustration at the lack of economic opportunities was a root cause of the violence of the mid-sixties. It connected that denial of opportunity to white racism and said that white America bore much of the responsibility for black rioting and rebellion.
The report berated federal and state governments for failed housing, education, and social-service policies and also called for more diverse and culturally sensitive police forces. Any of this sound familiar? Dr. King said the report was a "physician's warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life."
The commission also documented the disparities between black and white Americans in major quality-of-life indicators. One of its most compelling chapters deals with the macroeconomic and political factors that made the 20th century black American experience so different than the 20th century European immigrant experience.
Here’s how the Kerner Commission summarized America’s options in 1968: “To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.”
Let’s see how America has done using the lens of the Kerner Commission.
The typical black family had almost no wealth in 1968 ($2,467); today, that figure is $17,409 (still zero, for all practical purposes). Median wealth for a white family is $171,000. Black households that own their own home remained virtually unchanged between 1968 (41 percent) and today (42 percent). The disparity in the black unemployment rate has remained unchanged for 50 years; it was twice the white rate in 1968, and it’s twice the white rate today.
Today, high school graduation rates for blacks is the same as the rates for whites. Even though the percentage of younger African Americans with a college degree has more than doubled, today we are still only about half as likely to have a college degree as whites of the same age.
Life expectancy for African Americans has improved dramatically, but an African American born today is expected to live 3.5 fewer years than a white person born on the same day.
And 50 years later, Donald Trump is POTUS, which speaks volumes about the direction of
America’s moral compass.
So how will the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death be memorialized? White America and its African-American sycophants will refer to the improvised ending of his 1963 speech and point to Oprah, Obama, Beyoncé, and Tiger and laude the change in America. But the black truth is we’ve made little to no progress.
Using the King standard, the great moral failing of contemporary black leadership is it’s been too grateful to America for far too little.
Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board. In 2016, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weekly by the Missouri Press Association.