The Long Road to Progress

The solution to racial inequality in America lies in building stronger families and in allowing businesses to create more economic opportunity.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
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When the March on Washington took place in 1963, my mother was 23 years old and eight months pregnant with me. Dad was the same age. He had just put himself through college and landed a gig as an elevator operator in the U.S. Senate. At night he went to Georgetown Law School. During the day, he kept his books in his lap as he ferried the senators between floors in the Capitol. Mom and Dad lived in the same garden apartment complex that future presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford did when they served in Congress. In the fall of 1963, Mom drove Dad to work every day on Capitol Hill and then every night to law school. Like many couples then, they only had one car – theirs was a Plymouth Valiant – and they got their news on the radio, because they couldn't afford a TV.

My parents didn't go to the march that hot summer – she was very pregnant, and he couldn't get time off work. Two months after I was born, President John F. Kennedy was shot. They bundled me up, and we stood curbside on Memorial Bridge as the president's caisson passed by on its way to Arlington National Cemetery.

When I was five, I remember the riots after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and the smoke from fires across the city. Mom remembers "Resurrection City," the tent complex that King's supporters built on the grounds of the Capitol as part of the Poor People's Campaign and the Army clearing the demonstrators after King's assassination. A federal judge called Dad's small solo law office to ask if he'd join other lawyers representing those who had been arrested, and over my mom's fears, he said yes. He found it so worthwhile that for the rest of his life, my father continued to represent indigent families in Washington for free.

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After the riots, I watched the city's poorer neighborhoods slowly rebuild and saw how home rule evolved in the District. In many ways, the city's postwar struggles with civil rights symbolized the larger campaign for equal rights nationally. Over the 50 years of my life, I've seen a lot of progress. But not enough.

First, the good news: Recent demographic surveys by Pew Research show that the gap between blacks and whites has narrowed in many crucial areas since my childhood. In 1964, the rate of blacks who completed high school was about half of the white rate; by 2012, the two rates were nearly the same. In 1964, black voter participation was only 59 percent; in the 2012 election, the rate of black voter turnout exceeded white voter turnout for the first time. The rate of black homeownership has stayed pretty stable relative to whites over the last four decades. Black life expectancy at birth has gone from 63 years in 1960 to 75 years in 2010, nearly the same as whites.

While the black poverty rate has declined, black Americans are still nearly three times as likely as white Americans to live below the poverty line. Last month's jobs report showed that black teen unemployment is a whopping 41 percent, more than double that of white teens; and almost half of black teens who want to work can't find jobs. The income gap between blacks and whites has widened since the 1960s: In 2011, the household wealth of black Americans was only 7 percent of white households – $6,000 compared to $91,000 per household. That's shocking.

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In 1960, 61 percent of blacks were married, now only 31 percent are. In fact, in 2011, nearly three-quarters of all births to black women occurred outside of marriage, compared to less than a third for white women, a statistic that drives disparity in everything from educational success to crime rates to poverty levels.

Clearly, looking at many traditional civil rights measures, the differences between blacks and whites have narrowed or been reversed. Where the gap has widened is in the economic realm. But is this disparity a civil rights issue? Economics professor Walter Williams of George Mason University argues it's not. "At one time, black Americans did not have the constitutional guarantees of everybody else. Now we do. The fact that the civil rights struggle is over and won does not mean that there are not major problems that black Americans face, but they're not civil rights problems. And if we view them as civil rights problems, the solutions will be elusive forever." The number of single moms who are black is one obstacle, he says: "That's a devastating problem, but it's not a civil rights problem."