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Commentary :: Globalization : Organizing : Politics : Race : Social Welfare
WWMLKD: What would Martin Luther King Do?
14 Jan 2005
Last year around this time, as throngs of protesters chanted and booed on the streets nearby, President Bush placed a wreath on Dr. King¹s grave in Atlanta. The President had said of King earlier that day that he wanted to "honor his life and what he stood for."

Now, as we usher in the President for a second term in office, it¹s time to ask whether he has lived up to Dr. King¹s legacy. On his watch working people and poor people, disproportionately people of color, lost ground.

"Every American deserves to be an owner of the American dream," said President Bush, but a great racial divide remains. If Bush wants to make this a nation where we can all be owners, he should be asking "WWMLKD?"
luther.jpg
What does it take to be an owner of the American dream? A house comes to mind, and a savings account, and a retirement account, maybe a business, and those things are usually accessible only to those with well-paying jobs, help from family and/or government subsidies. Yet for generations people of color have been afforded fewer opportunities to own, blocked by discriminatory practices in housing, loans, hiring, and more.

Decades ago, King spoke of millions of Americans "smoldering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society." This still rings true in 2005. In the past four years, some gains made in the nineties have been lost. In 2000, the Black unemployment rate dipped to an all-time low of 7%. Now more than one out of ten Black Americans is unemployed, as compared to roughly one out of twenty whites. The familiar call for personal responsibility loses its momentum when a person tries desperately and is unable to find work.

Income levels and poverty rates also worsened since 2000. The number of families in poverty fell rapidly during the nineties for all groups, but especially fast for Latinos and Blacks. Much of that progress has been lost in the past four years. As for earnings, the average Black income was 65% of white income in the year 2000, but 62% of white income in 2003. The first Bush administration blocked Congressional efforts to increase the minimum wage.

Many measures taken by other administrations to counter high joblessness, such as public works programs and extra state aid, didn¹t reappear in the Bush administration. Instead, tax cuts were supposed to be the cure-all. In
fact, they only increased the racial divide by benefiting primarily taxpayers with very high incomes, who are overwhelmingly white. Social Security privatization is another so-called solution that would actually worsen economic insecurity by lowering benefits, adding risk, and
ballooning the federal debt.

Refreshingly, the President has faced up to the racial homeownership gap, addressing certain challenges facing non-white Americans. It is hard to ignore the fact that while three-quarters or white families own homes, fewer
than half of Blacks and Latinos, and less than 60% of Asians and American Indians, are homeowners. While attention to the homeownership gap is welcome, much more should be done. Rising home prices, falling incomes, deceptive predatory loans, and discrimination block many renters of
color from homeownership.

So WWMLKD? Of course there is no quick fix for centuries of unequal opportunity, but there are many positive steps the federal government could take. The next Bush administration should maintain those few progressive taxes we do have, such as the estate tax, which funds services and programs for the neediest through after-death taxes on multimillionaires. We need new policies that encourage wealth-building. Imagine a brand-new version of the post-WWII GI Bill, one that helps Americans build up nest eggs, get mortgages, and fund higher education. The money could come from closing corporate loopholes and giveaways.

Dr. King was greatly disturbed by the complacency of many Americans towards the economic injustice around them. He said, "Let us be dissatisfied until those who live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security." We should take heed as we inaugurate another four years of President Bush. The dream of economic security is still out of reach for many. If the president wants to honor Dr. King, he should do it not with words or a wreath, but with actions that patch up our damaged ladder of opportunity.


Mara Voukydis (mvoukydis (at) faireconomy.org) is a researcher at United for a Fair Economy (www.FairEconomy.org) and co-author of UFE¹s new report, "TheState of the Dream 2005: Disowned in the Ownership Society."
See also:
http://www.FairEconomy.org
http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/mlk/

This work is in the public domain.
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