The Ongoing Struggle for Jobs and Freedom

10/14/2011 09:38 am ET | Updated Dec 14, 2011
  • Dedrick Muhammad Director of the Racial Wealth Divide Initiative and Host of the Race and Wealth podcast of CFED

This weekend thousands will gather in Washington DC for the official opening of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. The official opening of the memorial was supposed to occur on the anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs where Dr. King gave his famous "I have a dream" speech. Dr. King and those working toward ending racial inequality understood that without economic advancement for racial minorities Dr. King's dream of a nation overcoming its racist past would never become a reality. Almost 50 years later, the most recent unemployment numbers and the regularity of African-American unemployment doubling that of white Americans speaks to a vision that has still not become reality.

The most recent monthly Monthly Black Worker Report, produced by the University of California Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, notes that Black unemployment stands at 16 percent, exactly twice the rate of unemployment for white Americans. In addition, the Black unemployment rate in September was higher than the Black unemployment rate in June of 2009 when according to economic experts the recession ended. September's creation of a little over 100,00 jobs is about half of what is needed to start whittling away at the 9.1 percent unemployment rate for the nation as a whole. When one recognizes that almost half of the 100,000 jobs created were actually striking workers from Verizon returning back to work, it becomes clear that the country, four years after the beginning of the Great Recession, remains deeply mired in an economic downturn. This explains the rapid growth of the "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrations breaking out across the country. Average Americans are experiencing record level wealth loss, mass foreclosures, extended unemployment and underemployment. Yet, the political discussion has been dominated by austerity budgeting with a focus on how much money should be taken from much needed government assistance for average Americans. These austerity proposals are often led by the same people who cheered for the deregulation of the finance industry and subsequently led the country towards financial collapse. President Obama's "American Jobs Act" helped re-introduce into the political discussion the possibility of the government investing into working class Americans instead of just continuing tax cuts for the wealthiest of Americans. Yet, the failure of the American Jobs Act to even make it out of the Senate re-enforces the reality that our current political system is not willing to take even moderate steps in helping to bailout the American public. The "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrations are an expression of outrage at this political situation.

Dr. King stated that "Depressed living standards for Negroes are not simply the consequences of neglect. Nor can they be explained by the myth of the Negro's innate incapacities, or by the more sophisticated rationalization of his acquired infirmities. They are a structural part of the economic system in the United States." This recognition of the structural source of Black economic disfranchisement is applicable today. The persistence of racial economic disparities, the over thirty year lack of income growth for most households, regardless of race, the rise in income inequality to levels last seen during the 1920s are all manifestations of a structural shift in our economy whereby the political and economic powerbrokers have chosen to respond to new global realities by pushing policies which enrich the elite to the detriment of most of us.

Dr. King spent the last year of his life organizing "An Occupy Washington DC" which was called the Poor People's Campaign. The assassination of Dr. King prevented him from participating in a month long occupation of the Washington Mall where thousands of disenfranchised people from across the country demanded an "economic bill of rights." The political establishment of that time deemed the calls of the protestors as impractical and eventually used the police to end the occupation of the Washington Mall by the Poor People's Campaign. As it was in 1968 so it is today, it is time to dare to dream beyond the politically possible and to build a movement challenging the political constraints that have taken hold of Washington. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dared to dream and died trying to make his dream a reality. Those who are gathering across the country challenging economic inequality continue the ongoing struggle to make Dr. King's dream a reality and have created a type of monument to Dr. King's work that I think would be most meaningful to him. Let us all through our actions honor and continue Dr. King and the nation's ongoing struggle for greater racial and economic equality.