When Americans talk about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic March on Washington, they often neglect to say the event’s title in full: the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The event, held 50 years ago on August 28, was not simply a pivotal moment for racial equality in the U.S. Its organizers — namely labor organizer A. Philip Randolph, who directed the march — intended it to be a call for economic justice for Americans as a whole and particularly African Americans. William P. Jones describes the makeup and motives of the marchers in Dissent:
Composed primarily of factory workers, domestic servants, public employees, and farm workers, it was the largest demonstration—and, some argued, the largest gathering of union members—in the history of the United States… Contrary to popular mythology, the demonstration was initiated not to break down racial barriers to voting rights, education, and public accommodations in the Jim Crow South but to highlight ‘the economic subordination of the Negro’ and advance a ‘broad and fundamental program for economic justice.’
Indeed, organizers of the march had a list of economic imperatives that drove them out onto the National Mall that day. They weren’t simply interested in equality based on the color of their skin; they wanted a system of fairness in employment, in federal programs, and in the economy as a whole. Their demands included “A massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers — Negro and white — on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages” and “A national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living.”
Of course, blacks experienced suppression in these fields at an unparalleled level. As King reflected during his famed “I Have A Dream” speech during the march, “One hundred years [after the emancipation proclamation], the colored American lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
Fifty years from the day he said those words, the same holds true.
Unemployment rates for black workers are atrociously high, and consistently higher than those of whites. Their rate has remained over 10 percent for most of the last half century. And while it averaged 8.6 percent right before the recession, it has again remained well above 10 percent since the 2008 crash. In fact, it just reached its lowest rate, at 12.6 percent, of the last five years.
Black wages are lower than those of other racial and ethnic groups. The 2010 census found that black Americans earn an average of $32,068 a year compared to whites’ $54,620, and they also earn less than Hispanics and Asians. Black household income has been on the decline — from 2000 to 2010, it fell by 14.6 percent.
And while black workers make up 42 percent of minimum wage workers, they are just 32 percent of the workforce. Meanwhile, the minimum isn’t anything close to the wages that the March on Washington demanded. Accounting for inflation, the $2 wages King and his fellow organizers demanded would now be $15.26 an hour. Our country’s current minimum wage, however, is $7.25.
Black Americans also just can’t get hired. Though the country has supposedly implemented the fair employment practices that the March on Washington protesters demanded, in reality, employers often hire friends and acquaintances who tend to be the same race as them, reinforcing segregated office places. Systemic poverty and police force bias have also led to massive incarceration of black men, leading to one out of every eight with a felony charge. It’s incredibly difficult in America to be hired as a felon. Yet perversely, employers on the whole prefer to hire white felons over black men with no criminal record.
There’s no “bootstraps” argument needed here. The racial injustice isn’t thanks to any lack of effort on the part of its victims. Rather, structural inequality and a system that favors those who already have wealth — namely, white people — are to blame. Thanks to a structure that provides better education for the children of wealthy people, even the highest-scoring low-income children are much less likely to graduate college than the lowest-scoring wealthy kids. Dr. King’s dream of a desegregated America isn’t a reality in the classroom; schools are split along economic lines that are racial lines as well, keeping them largely still segregated.
On top of that, black Americans aren’t getting the representation that would give them a voice to fight for their economic needs in government. Thanks to voter suppression efforts, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for low-income minorities to vote. Add to that gerrymandering districts, which can effectively segregate races and give white people more power, and it’s easy to see how the system remains intact.
Structural inequality is sewn so deeply into the fabric American life and government that the same words hold true today as they did when King said them 50 years ago: “Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”