April 4, 2018
Chaos or Community: The Tasks that Dr. King Left Us
By Mindy Fullilove, Darrick Hamilton with Chris Famighetti, and Maya Wiley
Fifty years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. Just months before his death he authored his final book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? From three different perspectives, three of The New School’s leading scholars tackle that question, and current challenges to creating a more just and humane society.
Dr. Mindy Fullilove: I have puzzled for years over Rev. Dr. King’s idea that the “white man needs the Negro’s love.” He discussed this in many places and many ways. In his 1958 essay “An Experiment in Love,” Dr. King phrased it, “Since the white man’s personality is greatly distorted by segregation, and his soul is greatly scarred, he needs the love of the Negro. The Negro must love the white man, because the white man needs his love to remove his tensions, insecurities, and fears.” It’s an idea that is very foreign to the anger and impatience that I felt growing up in the face of racism. The white man didn’t need my love, he needed a smack upside his head, I thought. But my rejection of the idea didn’t make it go away: it is a “sticky idea,” that eventually forced my ideas to expand so that I might comprehend. I don’t want to say that I’ve got it now – I think King’s evocation of love is much bigger than the pieces I get. But I am grateful to the challenge he posed, which has become a cornerstone of my practice.
Darrick Hamilton: The struggle for economic and racial justice that dominated Dr. King’s life continues. It challenges us to understand and overcome the racial dimensions of America’s economic stratification.
The recent book Dream Hoarders describes how the upper-middle class “hoards” virtually all the resources from economic growth for themselves and their kids. However, it fails to adequately address how overwhelmingly white, and underwhelmingly black, this group is. Census data from 2015 demonstrate that just 5 percent of black households have an annual income of $150,000 or more, compared to 12 percent of white households. In contrast, 22 percent of black households earn less than $15,000 a year, double the rate for white households. Blacks are the only racial group that actually saw a decline in real income since 2000.
Wealth disparities are far worse. In fact, black families where the head of household has a college degree have less wealth than white families where the head of household dropped out of high school.
A racial wealth gap born in a history of chattel slavery flourishes under the current regressive tax system. The best estimates suggest that 70 percent of tax savings from such measures as mortgage interest deductions and IRAs and other retirement accounts go to upper-middle class and wealthy households. The bottom 60 percent receive just 12 percent.
To create a more equitable society, we need ambitious race-conscious solutions, like the “baby bonds” I’ve proposed with Duke University economics professor William A. Darity, Jr. Every American newborn would be provided an account: seed capital to purchase the economic security of an appreciating asset such as a house, a new business, or a debt-free education. The program would be universal. It would also be race-conscious given the nation’s apartheid-like racial disparity in wealth. The average account would be $20,000 and progressively rise to about $50,000-$60,000 for children born into the most wealth-deprived families. Such a program would cost upwards of about $90 billion— less than 20 percent of the $540 billion in annual federal tax expenditures that mostly benefit the wealthy.
To succeed, we need not just the “1 percent,” but also the top 20 percent, to reverse their opportunity hoarding ways and assume a fair share of responsibility for a more equitable economy.
Maya Wiley: When Dr. King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he famously commented on our lack of “moral” character despite our technological advancement. He said, “in spite of … spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come… [t]here is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance….We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers [and sisters].”
Dr. King was right about the scientific and technological advances to come, and his call for racial equality and its corresponding end to poverty is now more relevant and glaring in light of information technology. From applying for jobs to economic innovation and opportunity, the internet and the “internet of things” are driving forces in our economy – about 6% of Gross Domestic Product. And Black Americans and other people of color still struggle to gain access to it. From slow speeds to no internet at home, Black people struggle to get on line and stay on, experiencing higher rates of interrupted service. Civil rights groups complained about digital redlining by large telecommunications firms in the 1990s and that has impacted both quality and prevalence of high-speed internet access. This isn’t just historic. The National Digital Inclusion Alliance has documented AT&T’s failure to upgrade infrastructure for better service in largely Black and low-income Cleveland neighborhoods, while investing in its suburbs. As New School students documented recently, Detroit, which is 80% Black, generally experiences significantly lower internet speeds than its suburbs.
Other problems abound. Dependence on low-cost mobile phones that usually lack security protections, for example, increases users’ vulnerability to hacking and surveillance. Lack of clarity about internet privacy protections raises the specter of unsuspected meta-data profiling of users — and fears of profiling could discourage users from accessing online information about immigration and other basic rights. Data gathered online can create new forms of “algorithmic” discrimination, such as digital profiles being used to identify whether a child should be removed from home and placed in foster care, or whether communities will face “predictive” policing. And while the citizenship question the Trump Administration wants to put on the Census form has aroused a lot of justifiable opposition, we also need to focus on the fact that the 2020 Census will be the first Census primarily conducted online. This increases concerns about an accurate count, given the historic undercounting of vulnerable populations who also have lower rates of home internet access, and who often depend on less secure mobile phones.
Dr. King’s dream is only possible with digital equity in a time of rapidly changing information technology.
In 1964, Dr. King delivered a major speech at The New School on the state of the civil rights struggle. Until recently, there was no known recording of it – but then, a reel-to-reel audio tape of his remarks was discovered, digitized, and made public.Click me