Barriers Broken, Barriers Remain

Acknowledgment of the current state of play is necessary if we are to ever get beyond the surface, gut-level reactions to race that pollute our discussions of racism and its impact.
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There are many ways in which the country acknowledges the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Most retrospectives focus on his speeches and how his eloquence inspired a nation. Unfortunately, too often the reason why King and his generation were making demands of the country in the first place is lost. The fierce, stubborn, and systemic racism that served as one of the pillars on which America was built left Black people in a degraded social, economic, and political state that has shackled African Americans for generations. The Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) recently released a report that lays bare that with all of King's successes, much more needs to be done to bring about the fairness and equality he and his generation fought so courageously to attain.

The report -- 40 Years Later: The Unrealized Dream -- examines some of the racial disparities that exist in important societal indicators. While enormous strides have been made in educational attainment, poverty reduction, income and wealth, asset development, and social development, the date are incontrovertible in showing where we are as a nation.

In education attainment, for example, the change has been astonishing. Fewer than 30 percent of African Americans were graduating high school in the mid-1960s; now that figure is about 80 percent. The African American high school graduation rate has increased by over 214% despite the fact that a majority of African American high school students attend resource-poor public schools. At this rate, however, African Americans will reach equality with white Americans by 2018 -- 64 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

White opponents of affirmative action in higher education appear to be driven, in part, by a fear that Blacks are overrunning American colleges and universities and pushing out Whites. The report makes clear that while the African American college graduation rate has increased by almost 400% since 1968, there is still room for significant improvement. At the current rate, it will take another 80 years to overcome the inequality in Black and White college degree attainment.

Educational attainment is a major factor in wealth accumulation and these educational improvements would suggest that income disparities are closing. The reality is that there has been a scant reduction in income disparities between Whites and Blacks. African Americans, on a per capita basis, earn less than 60 percent of what Whites earn. Even with inflation-adjusted Black incomes increasing by 150 percent during the last 40 years, "African Americans have closed the gap with whites by only 3 cents on the dollar over the course of nearly four decades." At that rate, it will take more than five centuries to reach income parity.

Not all of these problems lend themselves to policy solutions. However, acknowledgment of the current state of play is necessary if we are to ever get beyond the surface, gut-level reactions to race that pollute our discussions of racism and its impact on our society. Too many people, White and non-White alike, want to ignore these issues in hopes that they will just fade away.

Senator Barack Obama's recent speech that touched on race has led many commentators to hope that we are on the verge of open and honest discussion on the role race places in American society, not just politics. I believe that America is in desperate need of such a discussion and hope that the facts presented in this report lie at the forefront of the conversation. For those who are serious about moving the country onto higher ground, the continuing significance of racial disparities, despite all of the great changes that have taken place in the nation, should drive any discussion.

Michael K. Fauntroy is an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of the recently published book Republicans and the Black Vote. A registered Independent, he blogs at:

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