I vividly remember the 1960s. I remember watching Dr. King speak live. I remember listening to the debates about civil rights, and eventually participating in them. I remember the news reports and the reactions to the murder of Medgar Evers, just shortly before the March on Washington.
The fearful identified with the words that Yeats had used to characterize Europe ravaged by World War I: “anarchy is loosed upon the world…the ceremony of innocence is drowned; the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The hopeful, however, espoused the vision of Dylan that “times they are a changing.” They heard his call to “gather ’round people wherever you roam,” admonishing the “writers and critics,” “senators, congressmen,” and “mothers and fathers” to lend a hand in deconstructing old systems to create a new world that would serve everyone’s needs.
In matters of race at that time, overt discrimination had the acceptance, if not the approval, of many in the majority community. Even in the north, landlords and real estate agents could admit they would not show rental or sales properties to Blacks. Some chose to leverage that stance as a selling point. Although the government had tried to remedy employment discrimination in its civilian and military work forces at least as early as the 1940s, legislation to guide private employers did not arrive until the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I remember one of my relatives who was ostracized by coworkers because he had hired a Black military veteran to work as a janitor in an otherwise all-white business.
These are some of my memories, but what about some facts? Do the data tell us that any of the basic elements of quality of life have changed for the races over these past 50 years?
Nationally, the Economic Policy Institute suggests that the dreams of Dr. King and the other speakers on August 28, 1963 have not yet reached fruition. Unemployment was twice as high for Blacks than for Whites in 1960—it had the same two-to-one ratio in 2012. Integration of our schools has not occurred: three quarters of Blacks attend schools where more than half of students are persons of color. Although the gap in poverty rates between Whites and Blacks has narrowed since 1960, the Black poverty rate remains twice as high as the White rate.
What about Minnesota?
If the dream of those who marched in August of 1963 included equality of opportunity, it looks like Minnesota falls short. The latest data for our state, published just yesterday, shows a 33 percentage point gap between the proportions of White and Black students meeting statereading standards.
If the dream envisioned equality of outcomes, we fall even shorter. For example, in 1960, in Minnesota, White household income was 50% higher than the household income of persons of color (Whites: $4,695; Persons of color: $3,116). In 2011, the difference had increased to 60% (Whites: $57,150; Persons of color: $35,500). For Black Minnesotans, the figure drops to $25,410. So, despite achievements in legislation to promote equality, the numbers, at least for income, suggest greater, not less, disparity between Whites and Blacks.
In 1960, in Minnesota, Whites and persons of color had very similar rates of labor force participation: Just over half of both groups (who were age 14 and older) participated in the labor force. Fifty years later, the situation shifted: About 78% of Whites (ages 16 to 64) participated in the labor force, compared to 65% of persons of color in that age group.
In fact, Minnesota is currently home to some of the very largest White – Of Color gaps in the nation including disparities in poverty rates (7th largest racial gap among states); proportion of adults working (5th largest); and home ownership rate (the largest gap in all of the 50 states). Unfortunately our “above average” quality of life, regularly touted in national media, while true for the state as a whole, is not shared in all quarters of our state.
Should the numbers discourage us? I don’t think so. Our efforts over the past 50 years have changed attitudes, and we have influenced culture. We have improved life for many, even if we have not succeeded in improving life for all. I remain inspired by Dr. King’s assertion that “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
On that note, we need to persevere. As we make life better for any of us, we make life better for all of us.
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