By Alex Mikulich, Ph.D.
When Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., introduced his “I have a Dream” speech, he marked the 100th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and cited the great promises made by the architects of our republic in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The architects “were signing,” Dr. King said, “a promissory note to which every American was heir. This was the promise that all men, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” He continued with these immortal words on August 28, 1963 before the Lincoln Memorial:
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note in so far as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check: a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
As the United States marks the 147th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the tenth year that all fifty states honor the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., National Holiday, have we, as a nation, fully funded our sacred obligations to the promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Have we fully funded—morally, socially, economically, and politically—the promissory notes of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation?
Undoubtedly, progress has been made—the tears of joy shared by countless Americans upon the election of President Barack Obama remains a memory of hope amidst a dismal moment of economic depression for people of color. If we utilize Dr. King’s benchmarks of sufficient funds, including voting rights, fair housing, jobs, equal educational opportunity, and access to affordable, quality health care, the promissory note is still marked “insufficient funds.” The failure to fulfill these promises concerns our shared humanity and democratic experiment.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund examined the voting rights records of the states still under the oversight of the Department of Justice by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Just after the election of President Barack Obama, a constitutional challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was advanced in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder (MUD). The plaintiff in MUD contended that the election of President Barack Obama rendered the provision of Section 5 no longer necessary. The NAACP agrees that the election of President Barack Obama marks significant progress and underscores the salience of race in the 2008 election and beyond.
The salience of race is most clear, perhaps, in the states still under supervision of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Nationally, 95 percent of blacks but only 43 percent of whites voted for Barack Obama. Whites were the only racial group that did not cast of majority of votes for President Obama. The NAACP notes that “only 10, 11, and 14 percent of white voters in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, respectively, pulled their levers for President Obama.” In comparison to the percentage of whites who supported John Kerry for president in 2004, Barack Obama’s support by white voters dropped in all nine states fully covered by Section 5. Comparing the 2004 and 2008 elections, Obama’s support among white voters only increased in states not under Section 5 jurisdiction. President Obama’s drop in white support relative to Senator Kerry was most significant in Alabama (19 to 10 percent), Louisiana (24 to 14 percent), and Mississippi (14 to 11 percent). Perhaps most importantly, President Obama’s “disparate performance in the covered and non-covered jurisdictions demonstrated both ‘a widening of the gap in political preferences between racial groups and a greater differentiation between the covered and non-covered jurisdictions.’”
Why review these statistics in light of the Emancipation Proclamation and Dr. King’s immortal words on August 28, 1963? The NAACP rightly underscores the fact that only three African Americans have ever been elected to the United States Senate since Reconstruction and none have ever been elected by a state under Section 5 jurisdiction. Only two African Americas have ever been elected as state governor, former Governor Douglas Wilder of Virginia, a covered state, and Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, a non-covered state.
Regarding representation in the House of Representatives, the NAACP reports that forty-two African Americans currently serve in 111th Congress, and of those, eleven represent fully covered states. Three fully covered states (Alaska, Arizona, and Louisiana) currently have no African American congressional representatives.
The NAACP correlates these significant disparities in white and black voting in Section 5 covered states with numerous examples of voting discrimination in Section 5-covered states considered by Congress during its 2006 re-authorization of the Voting Rights Act. Congress found that between 1982 and 2006, the previous re-authorization period, Section 5 prevented more than 600 discriminatory changes. Congress cited evidence that included: “1) make polling places inaccessible to African American voters; 2) cancel elections in which African American voters, for the first time, were positioned to elect candidates of their choice; 3) intimidate African-American voters and campaign workers; 4) annex predominantly white neighborhoods into local voting jurisdictions in order to dilute the proportion of minority voters in those areas; 5) implement ‘at large’ systems for school board elections in order to limit the potential for minority candidates to be elected to those boards; and 6) adopt redistricting plans in state and local legislative districts that would favor white candidates.” Congress cited a consistent record of violations of the Voting Rights Act in the covered jurisdictions. The House of Representatives approved re-authorization of Voting Rights Act by 390 to 33 and the U.S. Senate approved re-authorization by 98 to 0.
Due to these continuing violations of the Voting Rights Act and due to the historic increase in minority participation in the 2008 election, the NAACP stresses the enduring necessity of Section 5. As the NAACP looks ahead, it expresses deep concern from this history that the redistricting process to follow the 2010 Census may trigger the “most strenuous efforts by state and local officials to minimize the voting power of minority citizens, and, as a result, yield a high number of Section 5 objections.” The NAACP argued that the Section 5 provisions of Voting Rights will be necessary to prevent many of these discriminatory efforts. Finally, although the Supreme Court did not examine the constitutionality of Section 5 in its June 22, 2009 decision, “the decision implicitly suggested that the Court might reconsider the validity of Section 5 at a later date.” Section 5 remains a necessity for enforcing voting rights of America’s historically disenfranchised African American citizens.
By Dr. King’s other measures of fair housing, economic empowerment, equal quality education, and decent, affordable health care, people who cherish equality and democracy have a great deal of work ahead. For example, unemployment among African Americans now stands at 16.2 percent, the highest rate of unemployment in 27 years, says State of the Dream 2010: Jobless and Foreclosed in Communities of Color, an annual report issued by United for a Fair Economy. Over the past year, between December 2008 and December 2009, the unemployment rate among African Americans increased by 4.3 percent, among Latinos by 3.7 percent, and by 2.4 percent for whites. African Americans and Latino Americans have sustained the biggest job losses.
Disparities in wealth, income, housing, education, and health care between whites and people of color persist in every region of the nation. In Louisiana and Mississippi, the unemployment rate for African Americans was at least 2.5 times higher than that for whites.
State of the Dream 2010 notes that “workers laid off in an economic downturn can take up to 20 years to replace their lost earnings.” Since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the income gap between blacks and whites narrowed by just three cents on the dollar. Many have noted that at this rate of progress, income equality will not be achieved for 537 years.
This is significant for the continuing wealth disparity that exists between whites and people of color. All people of color combined had only 16 cents for every dollar of white wealth in 2007, according to State of the Dream. The study shows that the median value of financial assets held by white families with assets was $39,500, while families of color with assets only held $5,500 on average.
The gap in wealth is perhaps more significant because wealthier families are able to afford the best education, access to capital to start or expand a business, finance health coverage and expensive medical procedures, reside in safer neighborhoods, procure better legal representation, transfer wealth to subsequent generations, and withstand financial hardship resulting from economic downturns or an emergency. For these reasons, the wealth gap is perhaps the most consequential indicator of racial inequality.
Upon this anniversary, significant increases in minority voting and the election of President Barrack Obama ought to be celebrated. Yet, in no way can we claim that we live in a “post-racial” society. As a nation, we have yet to fund fully the promissory note of Emancipation for all Americans. Until we fulfill the conditions of freedom for all Americans, we will fail to realize Dr King’s insight that we are tied together in a garment of mutuality and destiny.
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