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What happened to Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream?

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10 ceremony in Johannesburg's Soccer City Stadium honoring recently deceased Nelson Mandela, the crowd welcomed and applauded President Obama and past South African presidents. But when current President Jacob Zuma prepared to speak, the crowd booed and jeered in the   presence of leaders from around the world,.

Their reaction expressed anger not only at the many scandals surrounding Zuma's administration, but also the fact that South Africa is one of the most unequal nations on the planet. It is very unlike what Mandela envisioned when he became president in 1994. According to Patrick Bond, director of the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in South Africa under Mandela's government, racial apartheid was replaced by " class apartheid ."

This incident coming so soon before Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 20 is an occasion for asking how far our nation has come since the decades of King's heroic battle for racial justice.   What follows is the first of a two-part response to this question.

One of the most moving images of the television age is of Martin Luther King in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, addressing 250,000 people spread out as far as the eye can see on either side of the reflecting pool. In his magnificent "I have a dream" speech, King called for the nation to "rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'"

Then King became Time Magazine's person of the year in 1964, attended the signing of the Civil Rights Act, and received the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1983 Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a federal holiday. When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, many were ready to believe that King's dream had come true, and that the United States had become a post-racial society.

Yet, a closer look at America in 2009 (Obama's first year as president)   shows that this "post-racial" society was an illusion. According to the Economic Policy Institute, from 1963-2012 the black unemployment rate has been twice that of whites. Incarceration rates for black males quadrupled over 50 years--from 1313 in 1960 to 4347 per 100,000 in 2010. The gap between real median black and white household income has been the same for 50 years (about $27,500 in 2012 dollars).

Moreover, between 2007 and 2009 the median white to black wealth ratio soared from 13-1 to 20-1. Why? Because, as Thomas Shapiro et al of Brandeis University explain in a recent report,   "half the collective wealth of African-American families was stripped away during the Great Recession due to the dominant role of home equity in their wealth portfolios and the prevalence of predatory high-risk loans in communities of color."

During the early 2000s a combination of federal deregulation of the banking industry and easy money policies of the Federal Reserve created an enormous appetite in big banks for mortgages they could buy up and package into securities to sell in the derivatives market. The banks, with the help of dishonest ratings agencies, didn't care how unsound and risky the mortgages were. Their goal was simply to crank up the volume of loans and associated fees they got for selling them off.

To satisfy this demand, an army of unscrupulous lenders saturated Black (and Latino) communities with subprime loans--mortgages and home equity loans to people who couldn't afford them, with deceptively written contracts and excessive interest rates and fees. When these loans went bad and a wave of foreclosures ushered in the Great Recession, black communities were disproportionately damaged.

This catastrophe came on top of a century of residential segregation and discriminatory lending practices that had kept most black families from buying into "good" (i.e. white) neighborhoods where houses were good investments. For instance, restrictive covenants prohibited white homeowners from selling to blacks; and banks and the FHA engaged in "redlining"--the practice of restricting loans to certain neighborhoods based on racial composition.

The racial gap in wealth or net worth is more important than the income gap. Wealth derives from income not consumed by living expenses. Wealth can create more wealth through investments such as home equity or stock. Wealth can be inherited, conferring advantages on future generations. As family wealth grows, it confers social status and political influence.

The history of residential segregation was surely part of what Martin Luther King meant in his "I have a dream" speech when he said: "One hundred years [after emancipation], the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land."

In the final years of his brief life, he campaigned on behalf of all races against economic injustice and militarism. I will discuss this final campaign in a subsequent column. (When I first began to read about this topic, I had intended to focus both on Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. My reading was an education--my admiration for King greatly increased, while my opinion of Mandela suffered for reasons presented in two excellent articles in Counterpunch by Jason Hirthler and Patrick Bond .)

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Brian Cooney Social Media Pages: Facebook Page       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

I'm a retired philosophy professor at Centre College. My last book was Posthumanity-Thinking Philosophically about the Future (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004). I am an anti-capitalist.

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