Struggling towards MLK’s “genuine equality”
Towards the end of his life, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began arguing that racism, poverty, and militarism must be addressed as interrelated issues, as a package, in order to create a more equitable society. Many scholars today claim that connecting those issues is what led to his untimely death. Dr. King himself predicted that the struggle for “genuine equality” as he called it, which will require public investments in the billions, would find less support than the struggle for decency. In an address in Atlanta on May 10, 1967, less than a year before he was assassinated, King described this “new phase” of the civil rights struggle:
“The new phase is a struggle for genuine equality. It is not merely a struggle for decency now, it is not merely a struggle to get rid of the brutality of a Bull Connor and a Jim Clark. It is now a struggle for genuine equality on all levels, and this will be a much more difficult struggle. You see, the gains in the first period, or the first era of struggle, were obtained from the power structure at bargain rates; it didn’t cost the nation anything to integrate lunch counters. It didn’t cost the nation anything to integrate hotels and motels. It didn’t cost the nation a penny to guarantee the right to vote. Now we are in a period where it will cost the nation billions of dollars to get rid of poverty, to get rid of slums, to make quality integrated education a reality. This is where we are now. Now we’re going to lose some friends in this period.”
“By the millions, people in the other America find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
King’s strategy for compelling the nation to spend billions of dollars was to organize a Poor People’s March on Washington DC. He envisioned hundreds of thousands of people camping at the capital, refusing to budge until their demands had been met. In March 1968, just a month before he was murdered, King delivered an address to Local 1199 in New York City, a union whose members were mostly African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and other people of color. King explained to that crowd:
“I have come to see that it must be a massive movement organizing poor people in this country, to demand their rights at the seat of government in Washington DC… Now I said poor people, too, and by that I mean all poor people. When we go to Washington, we’re going to have black people because black people are poor, but we’re also going to have Puerto Ricans because Puerto Ricans are poor in the United States of America. We’re going to have Mexican Americans because they are mistreated. We’re going to have Indian Americans because they are mistreated. And for those who will allow their prejudice to cause them to blindly support their oppressor, we’re going to have Appalachian whites with us in Washington.”
King was murdered in April 1968. The Poor People’s March occurred in June, 1968, but without the transformative effect King was aiming for. However, the organizing work King started with that campaign has since been picked up by the Reverends William Barber and Liz Theoharris, co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign. In a sign of their political power, members of the Poor People’s Campaign met with members of the Biden domestic policy team in December. On Thursday, January 21, Dr. Barber gave the homily at the 59th Inaugural National Prayer Service, with President Biden in virtual attendance.
The deep roots of racial inequity in public school funding
In 1967, Dr. King decried the inequitable funding of public schools. Those economic inequities, he argued, led to uneven life chances in “the other America”:
“In this other America, thousands, yea, even millions, of young people are forced to attend inadequate, substandard, inferior, quality-less schools, and year after year thousands of young people in this other America finish our high schools reading at an eighth- and a ninth-grade level sometimes. Not because they are dumb, not because they don’t have innate intelligence, but because the schools are so inadequate, so overcrowded, so devoid of quality, so segregated, if you will, that the best in these minds can never come out. ”
Those inequities in educational funding persist. A 2019 US News and World Report reported on study conducted by researchers at EdBuild that compared funding for poor nonwhite school districts to poor white school districts: “on average, the poor nonwhite school districts received 11 percent less funding per student, or $1,500—a finding that (EdBuild researcher) Sibilia says hammers home the deep roots of racial inequity in education funding.” The report calls out three states with particularly poor records. WA State is one of them. “Poor nonwhite school districts (in Washington State) receive 42 percent, or $8,200, less per student.”
Underfunding community colleges harms students of color, low-income students
Community colleges, which serve disproportionately large populations of low-income students and students of color as compared with four year colleges and universities, are similarly underfunded. In The $78 Billion Community College Funding Shortage, published by the Center for American Progress in October 2020, Victoria Yuen reports on the revenue gap between community colleges and public four-year institutions. In Washington State, the gap is approximately $8000 per full time student enrollment—$8000 vs. $18,000. Some of that revenue gap is a function of tuition; a substantial chunk, however, is because of state and federal policy.
Community colleges also serve a disproportionate number of low-income students. A 2019 report by the Century Foundation found that the majority of students at community colleges come from the bottom half of the socioeconomic distribution nationally, while just one in five students at the most competitive and highly competitive four-year colleges come from that same socioeconomic distribution.
The persistence of the racial wealth gap
A disproportionate number of those low-income students are also students of color, illustrating the persistence of this country’s racial wealth gap. A Brookings Institute study in 2020 concluded that “a close examination of wealth in the U.S. finds evidence of staggering racial disparities. At $171,000, the net worth of a typical white family is nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family ($17,150) in 2016. Gaps in wealth between Black and white households reveal the effects of accumulated inequality and discrimination, as well as differences in power and opportunity that can be traced back to this nation’s inception.”
In both K-12 and in community colleges, we still choose, through our public policy choices, to provide less funding for schools and colleges that serve high populations of students of color and low-income students. At the same time, we know that increasing our investments in those educational institutions changes the outcomes. A study conducted by the Century Foundation in 2019 reported that “scholars looking at community colleges between 1990 and 2013 found that a 10% spending increase boosted awards and certificates by 15%.”
Inslee’s proposed budget pays for anti-racism with workers’ wages
Inslee’s proposed budget separates, rather than integrates, the need to address racism and economic inequality. On the one hand, his proposal includes $23 million to advance equity initiatives, including expanding the State Board for Community and Technical College’s Anti-Racist Curriculum Review project. However, to pay for his anti-racist initiatives, Inslee proposes reducing the wages for state workers, cancelling the July 1, 2020 general wage increase for some non-represented, non-classified employees and requiring nearly all state workers to furlough—take a layoff—one day per month for 24 months.
Inslee justifies this trade-off by appealing to the generosity of state workers: “Just as they did a decade ago at the height of the Great Recession, state employees are making sacrifices to help the state address the budget challenges brought on by the ongoing, pandemic fueled, economic downturn.” He fails to mention that our state has the most regressive tax system in the nation. He fails to notice that many of the workers he proposes to lay off barely make a living wage as it stands, and many of those workers are workers of color.
Dr. King cautioned us that we will never be able to address racism in this society if we don’t simultaneously address economic inequality. The two go hand in hand, further exacerbated by the outsized proportion of our shared resources that are allocated for war. We can do better, Dr. King argued, as Dr. Barber will likely preach in the 59th Inaugural Prayer Service. The question is, when will we choose to?
Emily Lardner lives in Pierce County and writes frequently for Works in Progress.