Dr. King’s dream was as much about economic justice as it was about social justice. Today’s distribution of wealth in America represents his nightmare come true — even with Barack Obama serving as our president.
What derailed the dream? How is it that, 50 years out from MLK’s speech, black America has such a dismally small slice of our nation’s wealth?
Here’s how: In the 1940s through the 1960s, U.S. economic opportunity and upward mobility outside the African-American community were the envy of the world. Back then, economic inequality was plummeting.
While discrimination kept black America mired in poverty, Dr. King watched tens of millions of other Americans climb from humble beginnings to affluence. So, he justifiably believed that if African Americans could break free from the yoke of racial discrimination, they too could share in the American Dream.
It would take a generation or two until most of them made it, but eventually they’d get there.
Soon after the chokehold of racial discrimination on the advancement of blacks finally started to loosen, however, America began its return to the society that existed before Dr. King’s birth, where a small slice of the population lives in opulence while average Americans struggle to get by.
Today, it’s not social injustice, but extreme inequality that constrains economic mobility, not just for black Americans, but all of us. America, once the land of opportunity, now has a level of economic mobility lower than that of almost all other rich countries.
By the time African Americans broke mostly (but not entirely) free from racist constraints on their economic mobility, they were whacked with a new obstacle: the almost equally suffocating injustice of extreme inequality. They’re not the only ones suffering. But because they were locked out of the egalitarian economic progress that took place during Dr. King’s lifetime, they’re disproportionately represented in the group now stuck on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.
So here we are, a half-century after Dr. King described his dream, living through a nightmare where 400 ultra-rich Americans control as much wealth as our entire African-American population.