08/10/2011 09:02 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2011

Race Is Still a Factor in America

Recently the question has again surfaced: "Do we live in a post-racial America?" While I recognize and celebrate the many victories won by the civil rights movement and the progress our society has made in facing issues of ongoing racial inequality, highlighted by the historic election of President Barack Obama, our nation still must address the many structural inequalities that have left far too many communities of color behind. Simply put, race is a factor in the growing economic inequalities we have in this country, and we can no longer afford to sweep this issue under the rug.

We all know people who are suffering because of the economic crisis -- our family, our friends, our neighbors and even ourselves. But we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that entire communities have been devastated; African Americans, Latinos, Asian and Pacific Americans and communities of color have all carried the biggest burden of the Great Recession. The latest unemployment statistics serve as evidence of this disproportionate impact, reporting an unemployment rate of 16.2 percent for African Americans and 11.6 percent for Hispanics.

Just last month, the Pew Research Center reported that the wealth gap is at its highest level since the figure has been calculated and reported. The statistics speak for themselves: the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Latino households. But we did not start this decade this way. In fact, African Americans and Hispanics were just beginning to build a personal safety net, accumulate savings and invest in home ownership. Now we know that when our economy sank into recession, these communities fell faster and further than others.

The collapse of the housing market was one of the driving forces behind the most recent devastating loss of household wealth in minority communities. Communities of color have been disproportionately reliant on their homes as their sole savings and investment vehicle. When they were targeted for subprime, predatory loans, what began as a quest to build wealth and secure their chance at the American Dream via home ownership turned into a nightmare and financial ruin for millions of Americans.

The long history of discriminatory practices and policies in the real estate and financial services sectors has never really gone away but has just evolved with the times. Overtly discriminatory practices like redlining that kept minorities from buying homes in white neighborhoods or getting credit to start a business has evolved into mortgage lenders targeting minority neighborhoods with predatory, subprime loans with teaser rates and exploding interest payments. Many of our largest banks engaged in the especially egregious practice of "steering" minority borrowers into predatory, subprime, variable-rate loans with higher rates, when their white counterparts with the same financial qualifications received fixed-rate, prime loans.

The pattern and practice of discrimination and abuse in mortgage lending is just one example of the ongoing problem of racial discrimination in America. The growth of rent-to-own stores, payday lenders and a host of other unfair and predatory businesses that prey on minority communities is just a slice of what continues to weigh down communities of color. Additionally, African-American males and Latinos continue to be overrepresented in the criminal justice system -- more than 6.5 times and 2.6 times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts, respectively. In the educational system, African Americans and Latinos are still more than twice as likely to drop out as white students. Lack of access to healthy food, good schools, transportation, clean air and water and adequate health care (and the list goes on) continue to plague minority communities disproportionately compared with their white counterparts. Reports like those by the Pew Research Center and improved data from the Census Bureau give us a clear view of these impacts.

Nearly 45 million Americans and 1 in 5 children now live in poverty, which means that 3.7 million Americans fell into poverty in the aftermath of the financial crisis. While whites saw their poverty rates rise from 8.6 to 9.4 percent, the rate for African Americans and Latinos rose to 25.8 and 25.3 percent, respectively. Among Asian Americans, the data varies greatly, but among more recent immigrants like Cambodians and Hmong, poverty rates are as high as 16.8 percent and 29.9 percent, respectively, and nearly 22 percent of Southeast-Asian-American children are in poverty.

Clearly, the recession has been nothing short of a depression for communities of color, and we can no longer pretend that the laws we pass will affect everyone equally -- especially with a playing field that was already uneven to begin with. We must put targeted policies in place that will invest in African Americans, Latin Americans and communities of color -- that is the only way that we will ever close this ever-widening gap. We must prove that our country is capable of providing opportunities for all, that we can create pathways out of poverty, that the American Dream does not need to be a nightmare, and that opportunity and prosperity are possible -- for everyone.

To do that, we must begin by investing in jobs and education and by targeting policies to address the tremendous disparities, economic and otherwise, that continue to plague our nation. Race has been, and continues to be, a factor, and it is time we admit that and begin to address it. If we are unable to do so, this tremendous gulf in wealth will only continue to widen, and entire communities will be left behind and excluded from any hope of the American Dream.

I have always believed that discrimination and racism are un-American. If we aspire to make America the country we know it can be, we must ensure that the policies we enact uphold the principles we espouse. As the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial approaches, I am reminded of the words he said nearly 50 years ago: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Today, we can rightly celebrate how far our country has progressed in the fight for justice and equality, but we must also accept Dr. King's challenge and recognize that we still have a far way to go.