Still just a dream: 60 years later, racial wealth disparities remain wide

By: - August 31, 2023 4:55 am

Martin Luther King Jr. Photo from the National Park Service.

It was 60 years ago this week that Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream Speech” to a quarter-million arrayed in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.

The crowd must have been filled with hope. 

Lincoln’s war against slavery had been won almost a century earlier. But virtual slavery in the form of legalized discrimination persisted until the previous decade, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the logically impossible claim of “separate-but-equal” schools.

Members of the huge crowd on Aug. 28, 1963 had to know that the momentum on display that day was building. The Civil Rights Act passed the following year and the Voting Rights Act became law the next.

But even though some might want to pretend that the hopes King expressed that day have all been realized, there’s lots of evidence that many have not. 

The speech was the culmination of March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But the hoped-for economic justice implied in the title continues to be a long way off, according to an analysis released Monday. 

In fact, if we keep going at the current rate, it will take American Black people 500 years to catch up to their white neighbors, the report by the progressive groups the Institute for Policy Studies and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition says. 

“For every dollar of white family income, African Americans had 58 cents in 1967,” the report says. “In 2021 African Americans had 62 cents to the white household’s dollar. With this same rate of progress, it would take Black households 513 years to reach income parity with white households.”

The document points out that over the past six decades, Black people have made good progress in many areas, including poverty, unemployment rates and in educational attainment:

  • In 1963, more than half (51%) of Black people and 15% of white people lived below the poverty line. By 2021, the share of Black people living in poverty had dropped to 20% and that of white people had fallen to 8%.
  • In 1962, just a quarter of Black Americans had attended four years of high school. By 2022, that rate had skyrocketed to just over 90%.
  • In the two decades between 1974 and 1994, Black unemployment was consistently above 10% and twice as high as white unemployment. Since 2018, Black unemployment has been at record-low levels between 5% and 6%.

Many of the gains — for poor Black people and poor white people — might be attributable to Great Society programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, housing subsidies, food stamps and employment-training programs. But when you look at many socio-economic indicators, the gap between the two groups has been stubborn:

  • Black family income was 58 cents for every dollar of white family income in 1967. Black people’s share had risen to just 62 cents by 2021.
  • Black homeownership increased from 38% in 1960 to 44% in 2021, while white homeownership increased from 64% to 74% — a greater rate of increase that has exacerbated the homeownership gap.
  • In terms of wealth, Black people in 1962 had 12 cents for every dollar non-African Americans had. By 2019, Black people’s share had risen to 18 cents. At that rate, “it would take 780 years for Black wealth to equal non-Black wealth,” the report said.

Some of the persistence of such disparities is the likely consequence of racism that remains baked into the system. For example, by valuing homes at a lesser amount merely because they have Black occupants.

“Homes of similar quality in neighborhoods with similar amenities are worth 23% less in majority Black neighborhoods, compared to those with very few or no Black residents,” the Brookings Institution said in a 2018 analysis. 

But a perhaps bigger cause of Black-white economic disparities is an accelerating trend that also bedevils average white people: growing income inequality.  

It stands to reason that if Black people started the economic race behind everybody else, it’s going to be much harder to catch up if a subset of their competitors — the very rich, who are overwhelmingly white — accelerates into warp speed.

“Income and wealth inequality in the United States is substantially higher than in almost any other developed nation, and it is on the rise, sparking an intensifying national debate,” the Council on Foreign Relations said in a 2022 backgrounder.

It later added, “In 2021, the top 10% of Americans held nearly 70% of U.S. wealth, up from about 61 percent at the end of 1989. The share held by the next 40% fell correspondingly over that period. The bottom 50% (roughly 63 million families) owned about 2.5% of wealth in 2021.” 

The University of Chicago’s Booth Review in 2017 reported that for the richest 0.01%, income growth has been even more dizzying. That group’s average annual income has increased from an inflation-adjusted $6 million in 1980 to more than $31 million in 2015.

Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center in 2020 reported that the percentage of all income earned by the American middle class is rapidly shrinking. Where it earned 62% of all income in 1970, the middle class’s share plummeted to 43% in 2018.

So it would appear that in addition to taking other steps to achieve King’s dream by addressing Black economic inequality, policymakers might do well to address general inequality to lift up that group.



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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.