01/08/2014 03:27 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2014

LBJ's Unfinished Race War

Fifty years ago, during his first State of the Union address, Lyndon B. Johnson -- the president from the last state to emancipate black slaves -- declared an "unconditional war on poverty in America." Its objective was to "open the gates of opportunity" to everyone, but especially to those living on the "outskirts of hope" because of their race.

In 1964, America sought to fulfill its promise that all citizens would have a fair opportunity to pursue their hopes, to earn a decent wage, to find a decent place to live, to raise a family in safe communities with good schools, and with security against the bad luck of sickness, unemployment, old age, or being black in a country tarnished by the history of racial slavery and racial apartheid.

Poverty has always been colorblind and is not contained by geographical borders -- it equally affects urban ghettoes, Appalachia, rural towns in the Heartland, sharecropper shacks, migrant worker camps, and Indian Reservations. This is as true today as it was then. But it is also true that while poverty affects us all, it disproportionately impacts people of color in America. And it remains doubtful that we can cure or prevent poverty unless we come to terms with this.

Recent Census Bureau data shows that U.S. poverty rates for blacks (27.2 percent) and Latinos (25.6 percent) and their offspring -- black children (38.7 percent) and Latino children (33.8 percent) -- are much higher than poverty rates for whites and their offspring. If these rates were more equal this would be a significant improvement over the status quo. Not only would it be more fair, it would also move the nation closer to making the American Dream a concrete reality for everyone.

No one wants to be left without a decent chair when the music stops in a game of musical chairs. If being without one is akin to being impoverished, the problem with poverty in America is not that there are not enough decent chairs. It's that not everyone has a fair shot at getting one. In our far from perfect world, we can live with there not being enough decent chairs--provided of course that sitting on the floor or standing are not unbearable, and can be done without loss of dignity. What Americans cannot live with -- given their abiding commitment to fair equality of opportunity -- is stacking the deck in favor of some and against others in the competition for the limited number of decent chairs. The deck has been stacked against persons of color in America for far too long and we have yet to fix this problem.

Whites, on average, make more money, have greater net worth, and have lower rates of poverty than blacks. In 2011, the median household income for whites was $67,175 and $39,760 for blacks. The average white household had a net worth of $91,405, compared to $6,446 for black households. Between 2007-2011, 11.6 percent of whites lived in poverty, well below the 14.3 percent national poverty rate, compared to 25.8 percent of blacks. According to one estimate, while 1 in 2 whites will fall into poverty at some point in the course of their lifetime, 9 in 10 blacks will do the same. These glaring racial disparities in income, wealth, rates of poverty and vulnerability to poverty are evidence that blacks have not had a fair shot at the American Dream.

Some critics will argue that "cultural" differences and family structure, e.g., out of wedlock births, single family households, different racial attitudes toward hard work, delayed gratification, and education, explains these racial trends. And, unfortunately, there is some reason to curb our enthusiasm about the prospect of convincing these critics, and many average Americans, that structural factors partly contribute to explaining them.

For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina -- a natural disaster that put the national spotlight on the black face of poverty -- political scientists found evidence of black-white differences in sympathy for Katrina victims and in willingness to support government proposals to aid victims, with blacks expressing greater sympathy and support than whites. And in a Time magazine poll shortly after the disaster, nearly 60 percent of Americans blamed the disaster on the citizens of New Orleans -- who were predominately black and poor.

The spirit of philanthropy is alive and well in America. Yet when it comes to safety net-related assistance, which must be part of the ongoing war on poverty, their generosity mainly extends to persons who are deemed deserving or unlucky through no fault of their own. Research shows that white Americans are more likely than black Americans to believe that poor blacks are less deserving of help, and that they are poor not because of bad luck but because of their imprudent choices or lack of effort.

To quote Harvard sociologist Lawrence Bobo: "One cannot escape the conclusion that most whites have different and decidedly lesser views of the basic behavioral characteristics of blacks than do blacks themselves. And that generally these patterns indicate that African Americans remain a culturally dishonored and debased group in the American psyche."

A stubborn obstacle to addressing the unequal racial and ethnic distribution of poverty rates in America is a persistent failure to come to terms with the long legacy of denigrating the humanity of the black and brown poor by blaming their genes, their culture, rap music, their work ethic, or their choices. If any one of us -- regardless of race, ethnicity, or family background -- really did have a roughly equal chance of falling into poverty in America, or rising out of it, we will have made significant progress as a nation. This may be the best we can reasonably hope for in a society structured so that there are not, and never will be, enough decent chairs for everyone.

A rising tide of increased opportunity for better jobs, better homes, better neighborhoods, better schools, better health, better luck with the criminal justice system, and better chances to influence the political process will indeed lift all boats. Yet some boats will need larger waves to get to the shore of fair equality of opportunity. To generate these waves we must complete LBJ's unfinished war on racial inequality in America. And this will require race conscious as well as race neutral public policies.