THE BLOG
04/07/2014 04:59 pm ET Updated Jun 07, 2014

Why Racial Economic Inequality Must Be on the Agenda of the Civil Rights Summit

Barely a generation ago, African Americans were excluded from government protections in nearly every part of the country, no matter the injustice. It didn't matter if the abuse occurred in the voting booth, in the criminal justice system, in the labor and housing market or even at a lunch counter, African Americans were left to fend for themselves.

This week, civil rights leaders, TV pundits, historians, and four presidents will gather in Austin, Texas, at the LBJ Library to launch the Civil Rights Summit, which honors the passage of three historic pieces of legislation: the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act. These three pieces of legislation helped to make unacceptable outright racial discrimination and segregation in our civil life and as a matter of policy. Still, nearly 50 years later, we continue to see racial segregation and disenfranchisement concentrated within African Americans communities with little evidence that things change in the coming years.

At the heart of racial inequality in the United States, there has always been economic inequality. To ensure that the upcoming summit is not just a commemoration of the past, but a platform to discuss and embrace real solutions to racial economic inequality, the civil rights community must be at the heart of any action steps to move the nation forward. By almost any economic measure -- wealth, income, homeownership, business ownership -- African Americans remain at great distance from whites, sometimes by margins that have scarcely budged in half a century.

Perhaps what is most troubling is that in some cases progress is being reversed. The losses sustained by people of color during the Great Recession -- especially by African Americans -- underscores what has come to be an enduring obstacle. Homeownership is the linchpin of economic growth -- providing families with security and growing equity. But approximately one quarter of all African-American borrowers lost their home to foreclosure or came within serious risk of foreclosure during the Recession. That compares to just under 12 percent for white borrowers. In 2013 white homeownership rates stood at 73 percent while the African American rate was 43 percent. Without growth in homeownership, it is difficult to imagine a stable middle class or any substantive bridging of the racial wealth divide.

While banks and insurance companies and auto manufacturers were bailed out, no such government bailout has come the way of millions of homeowners, most of whom had the majority of their wealth tied up in their home. Nor does help appear forthcoming.

A bill now in Congress, written by Democratic Senator Tim Johnson of North Dakota and Republican Senator Mike Crapo from Idaho, proposes to wind down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the large mortgage bundlers that are backed by the federal government. Critics of the bill include Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has said she won't back a plan to replace the mortgage giants unless it guarantees affordable loans and includes support for low-income rental housing. The NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development and other important civil rights organization have drafted a letter expressing concern that Johnson-Crapo does not properly address racial inequality in homeownership and that "it does not provide a forward and inclusive way for communities to participate in the future housing market even though they will soon compromise the majority of new households in the United States by 2020."

As the luminaries in Texas this week rightly celebrate the legislative achievements of the Black Freedom movement of the 1950s and 1960s, we hope that equal recognition is given to the unattained goals, greater racial economic equality and opportunity particularly for the low and moderate income. Segregation continues in the neighborhoods where we live, in the executive suites and corner offices of our work places, and of course in our public schools. The Civil Rights Movement was never able to achieve their economic agenda that was surmised in the 1967 Freedom Budget. To truly commemorate the work of the past requires us to complete the long march ahead of us to make the United State a country of equal opportunity for all.

Dedrick Muhammad is the Sr. Director of the NAACP Economic Department and Executive Director of the Financial Freedom Center.

Subscribe to the Black Voices email.
Stay plugged in with the stories on black life and culture.