As we mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream Speech,” we find reason for pause, for praise, and for lament. There is much to celebrate because MLK’s dream has been experienced for many blacks, albeit imperfectly, especially for the black middle-class. There have been some racial tensions along the way, but the black, middle-class, Civil-Rights generation has accomplished great things since the 1960s. The private sector has demonstrated some of the greatest gains because skill and performance do not have a color.
Black Enterprise Magazine has compiled a list of some of the most accomplished black CEOs. The magazine reports that in 1987, Dr. Clifton R. Wharton, Jr. became Chairman and CEO of TIAA-CREF, distinguishing him as the first black CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Franklin Raines became the second black person to lead a Fortune 500 company when he became CEO of Fannie Mae in 1999. Moreover, American Express, Merck, Xerox, McDonald’s, Citigroup, Alcoa and many other large companies are full of all sorts of black talent in key positions representing the best of what Dr. King envisioned 50 years ago.
The public sector, however, has been an absolute disaster. This is where we pause for much lament. Low-income blacks have experienced nothing but a sabotaged King dream at the hands of elites who not only took it upon themselves to make decisions for how blacks should live, but also used the coercive power of government to do so. For example, as predicted in 1965 by Daniel Patrick Moynihan (who was, at the time, a sociologist serving as Assistant Secretary of Labor and later as U.S. Senator) in “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action,” expanding welfare programs destroyed the black family in low-income areas. According to the most recent data, over 70% of all black children are born outside of the context of marriage compared to 17% for Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. Given what we know to be the advantages of children being reared in two-parent homes, this fact alone may explain much of the achievement gap and social mobility gap between blacks and Asian-Americans.
The largest urban school districts in America, managed by black professionals and progressive elites, are among the worst performing school districts in Western society. In cities like New York; Atlanta; Chicago; Detroit; Washington, D.C. and so on, the high-school graduation rate for black males remains at under 50%, according to the most recent data. In many of these large cities, only about 30% of those black males who do graduate from high school, do so in four years.
To make matters worse, as Americans in general have become less and less religious, there has been an increase in low morals and the criminalization of bad choices. Blacks have suffered the consequences of strange sentencing standards for actions that, in a previous era, would have been handled by religious leaders and parents so as to not shame one’s family. The incarceration rate for black males is six times the national average and this is mostly due to drug laws governing recreational drug use and possession. As a result, state and federal prisons have increasingly become a drop off center for low-income black men who drop out of high-school and come from single-parent homes. This is the opposite of King’s dream. For lower-income blacks, the dream has simply been sabotaged.
There is still hope. If low-income blacks are given a shot at making the gains that middle-class blacks have experienced since King’s era, America could be the place that we dreamed about 50 years ago. In order for this to happen, low-income blacks need to be freed from the overreach of elites in government, pursue the advantages of marriage and family, and be given education options so that black parents are free to fully decide where their children are educated in a context where markets are free. These are among the basic liberties that have been withheld from low-income blacks since King but set the stage for the type of social and economic mobility that has made America both an imperfect nation and a great nation, nonetheless.