A half century after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life for the cause of civil rights and equality, black Americans find themselves in a peculiar predicament. They have attained their highest level of education in the history of the United States – but in many ways are no better off compared with white Americans than when King was still alive.
It’s among the most depressing, perplexing findings of a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute and others as we near the 50th anniversary of King’s death. Education was supposed to be the key to eliminating such gaps. And yet, the black unemployment rate stands at 7.5 percent today compared with 6.7 percent in 1968, still roughly twice as high as the white unemployment rate. The wealth of white families is about 10 times as great as the wealth of black families, whose average wealth barely increased the past half century. That’s even though black Americans have closed the high school education gap – 90 percent of black adults have high school diplomas and the share of young black adults with college degrees has doubled – even while navigating a school system that is more segregated today than it has been in decades. Black Americans with post-graduate degrees, the most educated people in the country, barely have more wealth than white Americans who have only a high school education.
Not only that, about 70 percent of white Americans own their homes, compared with about 40 percent of black Americans. And while the black poverty rate dropped to an all-time-low during the final year of President Obama’s second term, it remained more than twice as high as the white poverty rate.
There are lot of explanations for the persistence of racial inequality, but one stands out. Though the Kerner Commission report identified “white racism” as the primary driver of gaps in housing, education and employment the year King was killed, the country decided a war on drugs was better suited for the moment instead of King’s hope for a “Poor People’s Campaign” for Americans of all races. That led to a near tripling of the incarceration rate of black men.
Instead of forthrightly dealing with discrimination, America built more prisons. That destabilized already-vulnerable neighborhoods and families and wasted generations of American talent. Young white people selling or using illegal drugs were often given second chances and went on to lucrative careers. Young black people doing the same were more likely to be arrested, convicted and sent behind bars.
Black Americans took to heart the admonition to view education as a vehicle to success. Going from a little more than half of black U.S. adults with a high school diploma to nine in 10 is evidence of incredible progress. That message wasn’t wrong; it just wasn’t complete.
Despite the persistence of decades-long racial disparities caused, in part, by our unwise focus on criminalizing drug abusers, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has decided to refight the drug war.
That decision must not stand.