With the formal unveiling of the statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, originally planned for August 28 -- the anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom -- the National Mall will house a memorial to a man who never held the nation's highest office but brought it closer to its highest ideals.
Together with the national celebration of his birthday, the commemoration of the march and the quotation of his speeches, the new memorial ensures that Dr. King will be remembered. But will he be remembered rightly, not only as the subject of a monument but also as the leader of a movement for "jobs and freedom"?
Dr. King's commitment to jobs and justice lasted a lifetime and cost him his life. During his last year on earth, Dr. King organized a "Poor People's Campaign" for economic opportunity for all Americans. And he was assassinated while supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.
The battle for jobs for African Americans could not be more urgent and contemporary. This month the black unemployment rate will have been over 10 percent for four years. And, it is not likely to drop below 10 percent until 2015, in another four years.
While the Great Recession has pushed black communities into extremely high levels of unemployment, the fact of the matter is that, even in "good" times, black communities suffer high levels of unemployment. The best year for black job seekers was 2000, when the black unemployment rate reached 7.6 percent.
A 7.6 percent unemployment would be called a recession for white America. Only in the most extreme downturns such as the current crisis, does white America see unemployment rates at that level. But, in the past 40 years, the black unemployment rate has never been below 7 percent.
One reason for the high black unemployment rate is persistent racial discrimination in the labor market. Researchers consistently find that blacks presenting the same qualifications as whites are significantly less likely to receive job offers. The civil rights struggle for jobs for African Americans is not over.
As the organizers of the March on Washington understood so well, "jobs and freedom" require equal opportunity in all aspects of life. Freedom means access to quality education and good housing. Freedom means full participation in the political system. Freedom means fairness in criminal justice.
While the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision is a landmark victory, the Civil Rights Project reports that "blacks and Latinos in American schools are more segregated than they have been in more than four decades." Segregation matters because these majority-minority schools offer an inferior quality of education.
As for access to housing, we have not yet reached the Promised Land. The Center for Responsible Lending reports that even with the same credit score, blacks are more likely than whites to receive high-priced subprime loans, putting blacks at greater risk of foreclosure. The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center finds that in nearly 60 percent of interactions, blacks looking for rental housing in New Orleans receive worse treatment than whites. Moreover, "In some instances housing providers indicated to African-American testers that they were not taking [rental] applications even though, only hours later, they informed white testers that they were in fact accepting applications."
As Michelle Alexander argues persuasively, criminal justice policies, particularly around illicit drugs, constitute a "new Jim Crow." White youth and black youth are about equally involved with illicit drugs, yet criminal justice policies target black youth while essentially decriminalizing illicit drug use among middle-class youth on college campuses, as the authors of Dorm Room Dealers report.
Once an individual has a criminal record, that scarlet letter stays with him for the rest of his life. Even though he has paid his debt to society, his voting rights and job, educational, and housing opportunities are restricted. Although he is no longer behind prison walls, he has lost his freedom.
We should also use the anniversary of the 1963 march to think more deeply about the civil rights movement. The first small step is to call it the "March for Jobs and Freedom." Thus, we keep the still unrealized goals of the march prominent in our thoughts.
[This piece originally appeared on The Hill's Congress Blog.]
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