Fifty years after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis on April 4, 1968, some things have changed and some things have stayed the same, according to one ethnic studies professor at Northern Arizona University.
“We’ve made substantial progress,” said Professor Frederick Gooding Jr. “But I don’t think the ‘Dream’ has been met. I think we have a ways to go.”
Compared with 1968, the number of black people completing high school and college have increased, income for black families has increased and more black people are serving in elected office and businesses.
According to the Pew Research Center, in 2017, 87 percent of black people ages 25 and older had a high school diploma and 24 percent of black people ages 25 and older have completed four years or more of college.
According to Economic Policy Institute, the hourly wage of a black person rose by 30.5 percent between 1968 and 2016 and household income for black families increased by 42.8 percent during the same time, with both figures adjusted for inflation.
The current U.S. House of Representatives has 45 members who are black and the U.S. Senate has three who are black. The first black U.S. president was elected in 2008. And there are currently three black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
Gooding said the election of President Barack Obama was certainly a high water mark. But, he said that although many of the overt and obvious signs of racism have been removed from society, an undercurrent still remains. Racism has evolved, he said.
“It’s a newer strand of it, Racism 2.0. It’s more subtle, more suave and more sophisticated, because it’s not so direct, not so overt,” he said. It’s not easy to measure and requires a bit more work to find than someone shouting epitaphs at walking down the street.
But it can be found in some statistics, he said. Such as the percentage of blacks compared with whites who are incarcerated in the U.S., the proportion of black homeowners vs. white homeowners or the gap in wealth between black families and white families.
According to the Pew Center, in 2016 federal and state prisons had about 486,900 inmates who were black and 439,800 who were white. In 2016, black people made up about 12 percent of the adult population in the U.S. but 33 percent of the prison population and whites made up 64 percent of the adult population and 30 percent of prisoners.
Figures from a 2017 Housing Vacancies and Homeownership study by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that in 2017 around 72 percent of whites were homeowners were white while 42 percent of blacks owned homes.
According to the Pew Center, in 2016 the wealth of white households was about $171,000 compared to $17,100 for black households.
You can also see it in the way that police shootings are handled, he said. For example, after the shooting of Justine Damond, the Australian woman who was shot by police in Minneapolis, the name and photo of the officer was in many newspapers and news reports.
However, the names of the officers involved in the shooting death of Stephon Clark, a black man living n Sacramento, have not been released yet, Gooding said.
The Black Lives Matter movement and the protests against Clark’s death are seen as expressions of the anger of the black community rather than empathy for the victim.
Dr. King wasn’t just a civil rights leader, Gooding said. King also fought for equality in the workplace, especially for those who work in the public sphere. King was in Memphis because he was trying to help with the sanitation workers’ strike. His 1963 March on Washington, where he gave his “I have a dream” speech, was to draw attention to the need for economic justice as well as civil rights for black people.
Today’s teacher strikes echo that inequality. People who work in public employment like teachers, sanitation workers and others are keys to the local economy, Gooding said. They’re middle-class workers who are being squeezed from both ends. They’re not making enough to pay their bills but they’re incredibly important to society.
Just as racism has evolved, people have to evolve in order to notice it, Gooding said. The best way to do so is to tackle the subject head-on through “experience, exposure and education,” he said.
“We have to be honest with ourselves about where we’re falling short,” he said. “We need to discuss the darker portions of our past.”
If we don’t talk about those dark portions -- slavery, economic inequality for all poor people, racial injustice or the violence that dogged the civil rights movement and felled King himself -- then we can’t learn from the past, Gooding said.
“We hurt people by not talking about it,” he said.
And the discussion needs to start earlier in people’s lives. He has students who have heard of the civil rights movement but haven’t really studied it. They don’t know about King’s passion for economic equality for all.
The more people discuss the situation, the less awkward it will become and then we can figure out what’s going on now, even if it’s not perfect and start on a plan to move things forward, he said.