Blogs > Steve Hochstadt > Reflecting on Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream and Legacy

Jan 22, 2020

Reflecting on Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream and Legacy

tags: Martin Luther King Jr.,Mass Incarceration,housing discrimination,Michelle Alexander

I went to the annual city-sponsored celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., on Monday. Jacksonville’s Mayor, Andy Ezard, inaugurated these yearly breakfasts a decade ago. Every year a speaker helps us think about what MLK said, what he wanted to happen, and how he lived. There is often music, and we sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, a hopeful song: from “the dark past”, “the gloomy past” “that with tears has been watered”, to the present, “the place for which our fathers signed”, to the future, “Let us march on till victory is won.”

Some years, that song and the celebration around it do lift hope, because the present is evolving to a brighter future that is joyous to imagine. But not today.

Today hope means believing that we will soon stop going backwards, that this moment is just a hesitation on the journey toward the unity we seek. Sometimes hope makes way for despair about how things might get worse.

What American governments since the 1960s have created in order to undo centuries of prejudice, discrimination, and persecution, the Republican Party is dismantling. I don’t say that Trump is doing this, even though his name is on every new policy of his administration, because he is not alone. Republican politicians across the country are doing this work themselves, defending the work of their colleagues, and pledging allegiance to the man who is leading the charge backwards.

Two authors of distinguished books on the history of race in America just wrote articles for the New York Times for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, which tell us where we are and what is being done in our names. Michelle Alexander published “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” 10 years ago, when Trump was just a glittery real estate con man. She showed how the explosion of the number of Americans in jail in the wake of the “war on drugs” was at its heart “another caste system — a system of mass incarceration — that locked millions of poor people and people of color in literal and virtual cages.”

The numbers must be printed to make their proper impression. These are careful estimates only, because fuller data does not exist, but they are the best estimates we have. Between 1980 and 2010, the proportion of Americans in prison tripled to 1%, but the proportion of African Americans in prison also almost tripled from 1.3% to 3.1%. The racial disparity remained about the same, as American governments imprisoned so many more Americans. In 2010, one out of three black men had a felony conviction in their past, and one of every ten were in prison or on parole. That was true for only one in fifty of the rest of the population.

This happened in Boston, where African Americans were subject to police observations, interrogations, and searches at seven times the rate of the rest of the population. It happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, when African Americans were nine times as likely to be subject to police investigative detentions. And so on.

Alexander shows that both Democratic and Republican political leaders gave the US the dubious distinction of having more than one fifth of the world’s prisoners and the highest incarceration rate in the world: 756 per 100,000, while most countries imprison fewer than 150 per 100,000. Both Boston and Charlottesville were dominated by Democrats.

Now she delivers a shorter message: our nation must move back to the path toward racial justice from the detour we are taking. Obama and the national Democratic Party did not do enough to reverse those trends. But that is a long way from what has happened in the past 3 years. She is clear that the transition from Obama to Trump moved us from a hopeful discussion of racial reform to an era of white supremacy, clothed as returning to greatness.

Richard Rothstein published “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” three years ago. He also covered the long history of discrimination that Alexander described, but this time from the point of view of housing segregation. In fine detail, Rothstein explained how the federal government throughout the 20th century, under Democrats and Republicans, used its vast financial powers to promote further residential segregation, notably in the new postwar suburbs. Where I grew up, in the giant Levitt developments on Long Island, the federal government insured his loans on the condition that African Americans would be excluded from buying his houses.

This has been the American way for centuries, putting an unfair economic burden on African Americans. 1968 appeared to put an end to federal complicity in the segregation of American housing. Through the Fair Housing Act, included in the Civil Rights Act of 1968, groups who are discriminated against in anything to do with housing can use the legal system to demand redress. That Act was passed in the wake of MLK’s assassination.

But discrimination continues, taking less obvious forms. An example of how this occurs out of our sight comes from Syracuse. Since 1996, property has not been reassessed in the city, which seems like merely local government incompetence. But since then, the values of homes in white neighborhoods have risen much faster than homes in black neighborhoods. Reassessment would shift some of the weight of property taxes toward those much more valuable white homes. Not doing anything means that black homeowners have been paying an increasingly disproportionate share of property taxes. The city government in Syracuse is dominated by Democrats.

Rothstein’s article in the NY Times shows how Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson is directing his vast bureaucracy and billions of dollars away from the process of desegregation. Since he was a candidate for President in 2016, he has argued that efforts to fix racial segregation are bad “social engineering”. Now HUD is trying to make it impossible for residents in a community like Syracuse, where government or business policies discriminate against racial minorities, to prove that in court. One of the far-reaching policies of the Trump administration which makes fighting discrimination more difficult.

These are pieces in today’s national puzzle of race. Martin Luther King has missed more than 50 years of change in race relations, in party politics, in the American landscape. But his yet unrealized dreams can still inspire hope.

Hardly anything is more worth fighting for.

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