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Rod Watson: 50 years after Martin Luther King's death, blacks have yet to overcome

Rod Watson

By most available evidence, they were wrong in 1968.

All of those Americans, black and white, who marched the 4.3 miles behind Martin Luther King Jr.’s coffin from Ebenezer Baptist Church to Morehouse College while singing the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement had it wrong.

Wednesday marks 50 years since King’s assassination, a period that has seen tremendous changes in the size of the black middle class and color of political and business leadership.

But despite such obvious progress both locally and nationally, we have yet to overcome.

In fact, as difficult as they were to achieve – with lives lost and heads bashed in – legislative victories like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act merely ended one phase of the fight, not the fight itself.

“Some people misunderstood that moment,” Henry L. Taylor Jr., director of the University at Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies, says of the Civil Rights Era victories.

As evidence, one need just look at the numbers.

According to the most recent Census Bureau estimates, the median household income for whites in the United States is $57,407, compared with just $35,695 for blacks.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the black unemployment rate is 7 percent, compared with 3.4 percent for whites – a 2-1 ratio that holds true in good and bad economic times.

While 8.8 percent of white families live in poverty, nearly three times as many black families – 23.1 percent – are poor.
Similar gaps exist in Buffalo, where the white median household income is $41,578, compared with $23,763 for blacks, and 19.6 percent of whites live in poverty compared with 39.7 percent of blacks.

Those disparities exist after eight years of a black man in the White House, and they exist in a city with a black mayor, a black Common Council president, a black school superintendent and a black School Board president. Obviously, political progress is not enough when there is something more systemic at work and when black electoral success too often depends on not upsetting the status quo.

The recent Stanford-Harvard-Census Bureau study demonstrating that African-American boys do worse economically than whites, even when growing up in well-off families and in the same neighborhoods, points to those structural issues.

In fact, the few neighborhoods where poor black boys did as well as whites were also the ones where surveys showed less discrimination and racial bias.

The study “ought to serve as a wake-up call to black people who thought that the struggle was over,” said Taylor.
Yet he is optimistic that there are enough people – black and white – with the clarity to recognize that the fight is not over, not even close.

He sees that in the work of PUSH Buffalo on the West Side, the fight of Fruit Belt residents to establish land trusts to control their own neighborhoods, and the work of young people around police brutality.

In short, the struggle has just moved to a new phase: from fighting for access to institutions, to fighting to change those very institutions.
But it takes place against headwinds many probably thought would never blow this strong again.

Expanding the divide

“What do you have to lose?” candidate Donald Trump famously asked African-Americans.

A little over a year after his inauguration, the answer is clear.

The Justice Department targeted Harvard University over its affirmative action policies, as if blacks are overrunning elite institutes of higher education. The department also quickly reversed course and dropped a challenge to Texas’ voter ID law that its lawyers had concluded discriminated against minorities.

These new attacks came just four years after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, giving affected states and municipalities free rein to rewrite their voting rules without federal oversight, as if the history of discrimination that necessitated the act never existed.

Maybe that’s why – 50 years after King forced America to confront race, and immediately following the first black president – a majority of Americans think the United States has put a racist in the White House, according to a poll released at the end of February by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Yet only 21 percent of Republicans agree. Nor is it as if Trump is out of touch with a lot of the people who voted for him.

“The results show a stark divide on racial issues gripping the country,” the pollsters concluded.

That divide plays out against the backdrop of “What if they were black?” That’s the mental game African-Americans still play when they watch a white person being loud, crude, drunk or behaving in some other inappropriate way while being excused for behavior no black could get away with.

The ultimate example of this racial double-standard plays out daily. One can only imagine the fallout if Barack Obama had been caught in 365 false or mostly false statements by independent fact-checkers. Or had been credibly accused of sexual assault and had, in fact, bragged on tape about grabbing women by the you-know-what. Or had women coming forward to describe extramarital affairs. Or had not divorced himself from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, even though Trump flirts openly with white nationalists and other avowed racists, only to be embraced by white evangelicals who continue to rally around him while forfeiting any claim to moral standing.

To be sure, some blacks – seduced by a faux equality and no longer recognizing the double-standard prior generations knew how to navigate by always being a little bit better – make it easy to keep stereotypes alive.
But the structural inequities built around color – which poor whites coming here never had to contend with – have been given a new lease on life as too many Americans respond to the dog whistles and turn back the clock. Maybe that’s why a Pew Research Center survey released in December found 60 percent of respondents saying the election has worsened race relations.

But that’s not the only headwind African-Americans face.

The problem in the mirror

When he saw King off at the airport after his address in Kleinhans Music Hall just five months before his death, George K. Arthur probably couldn’t have imagined the progress – or the backsliding – the black community would experience over the next five decades.

“We came a long way … but we’re regressing,” the former Common Council president and one-time mayoral candidate said.

As evidence, he points to the black businesses that no longer exist, the business associations that are no longer as active and even the fact that the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – where King was the first national president – is rarely heard from.

“We’ve become too comfortable, is what our problem is,” said Arthur.

It’s not a new complaint. Progress, in fact, has been a two-edged sword.
Efforts to tear down walls and integrate suburbs simultaneously robbed black neighborhoods of vital social and economic capital because not enough of those who “moved on up” remembered to also give back.

Too many of those left behind never learned the reality that the unwritten rules – about dress, demeanor, language – are the most important ones for strategically navigating a society still stacked against you even as you try to change it.

Not that following those rules is any guarantee. But at least it can up your odds. Too many young blacks, unfortunately, don’t recognize that. Victims of a miseducation that safeguards the status quo, they don’t know the history of those who did know how to use the rules to their advantage to forge change and open the doors for those who came behind.

Arthur, for instance, marvels at the response when school groups come through the Nash House Museum in the Michigan Street African-American Heritage Corridor. He tells the students about Mary B. Talbert, whose early 1900s activism helped put Buffalo on the Civil Rights map.

“And they all look at me like I’m crazy,” he said.

The open question

So where does that leave us? In the wake of repeated police shootings of unarmed black men, the attacks on voting rights and affirmative action that began well before Trump took office, and the backlash against the simple proposition that Black Lives Matter, who could argue that 50 years after King’s death, America is still moving toward his dream?

In fact, he was killed while planning the Poor People’s Campaign to address the economic disparities that afflict the impoverished of all races in an obscenely wealthy nation, but that still fall disproportionately on blacks and result in the gaps we see today.

If there is any good news, it’s in the AP-NORC finding that 51 percent of respondents recognize that African-Americans – and Hispanics – still face disadvantages in trying to get ahead. In the same poll, 60 percent think whites still enjoy advantages.

But recognizing those realities and being willing to embrace policies that address them are two different things. That’s especially true when, five decades after monumental legislative changes, many Americans think they’ve already done enough.

However, progress in any endeavor does not chart as a straight line on a graph, ascending steadily upward. Instead, it’s marked by fits and starts, sometimes even falling backward before lurching ahead again.

America may yet overcome. The question – and it’s an open one, especially now – is: Do we still really want to?

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