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The March Was Only a Beginning: Measuring Dr. King's Dream

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Dr. King's 'Dream' speech, like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation before it, profoundly shaped modern America. In a society rife with discrimination, Dr. King dared to share a vision for a nation whereby the American Dream, in which his own inspiring dream was "deeply rooted," was possible for all citizens. Many of us can recite parts of that speech as easily as we can sing the lyrics to our national anthem or pledge allegiance to our flag: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character... I have a dream today."

Half a century after that speech was delivered to a crowd of over 200,000 people, we are reminded of how far we have come in terms of civil rights and social justice: The death of Jim Crow; the outlawing of racial discrimination in education, employment and housing; and securing the right to vote. Today, we broadly acknowledge that our diversity is one of our nation's greatest assets. But the full name for the 1963 event was "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." And, examined through that lens, measuring progress on achieving Dr. King's dream becomes much more complex.

In the past fifty years, African-Americans and other minorities have seen profound improvements in educational attainment and economic opportunities, but a persistent race gap between white and non-white Americans remains. This threatens not only quality of life for so many individually but also the long term economic health of our nation as we become a majority-minority country. Here, a look at how we are doing fifty years after the historic march:

The most reliable indicator of long-term economic success in 2013, college graduation, eludes most minorities.
Minorities have seen huge gains in education, but while the race gap in terms of high school graduation has all but been erased between 1963 and today, disparities in college graduation cloud the future. Indeed, for most families today, college is the vehicle to a middle-class life and economic mobility for children.

A recent Urban League report found that fifty years ago only one-quarter of African-American adults had completed high school while, currently, only 15 percent of African-American adults don't have a high school diploma. The same report also noted that five times as many African-Americans hold a college degree now than in 1963. But, despite this absolute progress, minorities still lag behind their white counterparts: While 36 percent of whites in the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas hold college degrees, just 20 percent of African-Americans and 14 percent of Hispanics have graduated from college. At the national level, the race gap has actually grown in terms of college graduation, from 6 percentage points in 1963 to 10 percentage points today.

The disparities in rates of employment between the races are not better today than in 1963. According to the Economic Policy Institute, fifty years ago, the unemployment rate was 5 percent for whites and 10.9 percent for African-Americans. Today, it is 6.6 percent for whites and 12.6 percent for African-Americans. So, despite the previously noted progress in terms of academic achievement, the gap has barely narrowed, and rates for African-Americans have hovered at roughly double White unemployment through economic booms and recessions.

The income gap has changed little over time, and the wealth gap is growing. Today, the white to non-white income gap is at 60 percent, having closed by only 7 points since 1963. And, particularly as we navigate a shaky recovery from the recession of 2008, we know that income doesn't tell the whole economic inequality story. Indeed, the racial wealth gap--wealth being the savings and property that can help sustain a family during a job loss or health emergency--is three times larger than the racial income gap. It is wealth; more than income; that changes the trajectory of intergenerational poverty. The Pew Center reports that the median wealth of White households is 20 times that of African-American households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. And, this is true regardless of education level -- the median wealth of African- American families in which the head of household graduated from college is less than the median wealth of white families whose head of household dropped out of high school.

Mass incarceration limits access to opportunity and civic participation. In 1963 there were fewer than 220,000 inmates in our state and federal prisons. Today, with 2.3 million people behind bars, we incarcerate more of our citizens than any other country in the world. This reality disproportionately affects communities of color. The African-American prison population is the highest of any demographic -- 38 percent of state and federal inmates or more than 3 times the total number of people incarcerated in 1963 -- despite the fact that African-Americans only make up 14 percent of the US population. A recent NAACP study asserts that "If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime." This has huge implications for access to opportunity: A criminal record, even for nonviolent offenders, restricts access to jobs, education, housing, social services, and even the right to vote.

These trends collide in dangerous ways as we transform into a majority minority nation. In absolute terms, more African-Americans are in poverty than ever before. African-American poverty rates were cut in half between the early 1960s (when they were over 50 percent) and the year 2000. But the numbers have been inching upwards in the last decade. Today, more than one in four of the nation's 44 million African-American citizens are poor. More than one in three African-American children lives in poverty, a percentage that rises to well over 50 percent in cities such as Detroit, where 80 percent of the population is African- American. And we are seeing similar trends for Hispanics. According to the National Poverty Center, in 2010, 26.6 percent of Hispanics were poor.

While these statistics are sobering on their own, "the fierce urgency of now" with which we must address them becomes even more apparent as we stand on the precipice of a transformation to a majority-minority nation. In fact, this is a transformation that has already taken hold in many of our cities and metropolitan areas, where two-thirds of our citizens live. There, the under-18 population already achieved majority non-White status as early as 2008. If we do not dramatically change current trajectories, that majority will be significantly poorer, less educated, and less free than today's majority. This will have far-reaching implications for our nation's economic growth and security.

As a 22-year-old collaborative of the world's largest foundations and financial institutions working together to improve the lives of low income people in U.S. cities, we know that reversing these trends will, as Dr. King stated so eloquently in his speech, require all of us to acknowledge that our individual destinies and freedoms are inextricably bound to those of our fellow citizens.

And, just as cities are at the forefront of our nation's demographic transformation and most intractable problems, they are also likely the places where the solutions that will shape the America of the future will be developed and tested. We see great promise in the coming together of diverse leaders in cities around the country to move the needle on these important issues. From efforts that we are supporting in Baltimore to reconnect low-income residents who are predominantly African-American to the regional economy to Portland's work to advance racial equality in education, we have it within our collective power to disrupt our current course.

This week, we will all pause to reflect on how very far we have come. But much work remains in terms of building the America in Dr. King's dream -- an America that works for all. The march, he said, was only a beginning.