Martin Luther King Jr. on Economic Injustice
An issue that has been prevalent in American society is the racial disparity in economic well-being. It is difficult to ascertain the specific causes for this economic inequality and how race plays a role in one’s socioeconomic status. However, in this paper, I will analyze how historical figure Martin Luther King Jr., would approach the issue of economic injustice and what he would say are its causes and solutions.
Upon examinations of wealth holdings, average incomes, and median incomes it would seem that the gap in wealth between white and black Americans has grown in the past several decades. In Reardon and Birschoff’s “Income Inequality and Income Segregation”, it would also seem that income, segregation, and race are closely related to one another. In order to understand how racial segregation plays a role in economic disparity, Martin Luther King Jr. first examines the housing conditions, wages, and education of the black population when compared to white Americans. He declares in Radical King that the “economic plight of the masses of Negroes has worsened. The gap between the wages of the Negro worker and those of the white worker has widened. Slums are worse and Negroes attend more thoroughly segregated schools today than in 1954” (King, 2016, 191) which forces black Americans to live in poor neighborhoods with ‘substandard housing’ and ‘substandard education’. This results in thousands of students being “deprived of an opportunity to get an adequate education … because the schools are so inadequate, so over-crowded, so devoid of quality, so segregated” (King, The Other America). Without a quality education, African Americans have no choice but to work low skilled, undesirable jobs that pay low wages which prevents them from improving their low socioeconomic status. Furthermore, overcrowding of these poor neighborhoods leads to conflict as members of the community are forced to compete with one another for limited low paying jobs.
Even in present society, communities remain segregated through the use of residential redlining which shows how racism persists and plays a role in economic disparity. Also known as mortgage lending discrimination, “banks and other financial institutions deny loans to communities and individuals based on race” (Mendez). Rather than assisting black Americans, institutions continue to take advantage of and prevent African Americans from achieving true economic freedom. This results in poor living conditions, unequal access to resources, lack of homeownership, and a lack of government intervention to invest and improve these communities. In response to this, Martin Luther King Jr. would criticize the American government for allowing such an event to occur and the disinclination of the government to invest resources into these neighborhoods shows how they do not view African American lives as equal to that of white Americans. To that end, redlining can be seen as another form of racial segregation that leads to overcrowding, low incomes, and poor education.
Additionally, another factor that plays a role in economic disparity is the lack of generational wealth which is also caused by racial segregation. Many black individuals remain in poverty “not because they are not working but because they receive wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation … So the vast majority of negroes in America find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity” (King, The Other America). For this reason, black households have trouble affording essential expenses and are unable to allocate portions of their income into accumulating wealth. Consequently, black households are less likely to receive an inheritance when compared to white households. This emphasizes the importance of not only ending racial segregation, but also for assisting in the integration of African Americans into society to end the perpetual cycle.
Despite Martin Luther King Jr. and the efforts of countless others, it is shocking how the effects of legislation such as Plessy vs. Ferguson and Jim Crow Laws continue to persist to this day. At the time, people reasoned that segregation was “racially separate but allegedly equal” and did not violate the 14th Amendment. Furthermore, white Americans strongly adhered to the belief that “Jim Crow segregation generally, respected custom and did not stigmatize African Americans as inferior” (White, Ch 9). Contrary to popular beliefs that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the election of African American president Barack Obama signified the end of institutionalized racism, redlining and the lack of generational wealth shows how racial oppression remains to this day. Although we have succeeded in the abolishing of de jure, or legally mandated, segregation, we have failed to eliminate the less visible forms of de facto segregation that are not officially recognized by the law. The knowledge that racism exists throughout several centuries despite legislation against it sheds light on how deeply rooted it is in American society.
However, we cannot take the steps to address economic injustice, segregation, and the need for integration without acknowledging that racism is still prevalent in society. The use of redlining demonstrates how white Americans believe that “one is not good enough to live next door to him” and the unwillingness to spend resources to renovate communities reveals how white Americans believe that “one is not good enough to have access to public accommodations” (King, The Other America). The preceding statement validates how racism has not disappeared, and by allowing the continuation of segregation Americans continue to view African Americans as an inferior race on a lower level of humanity. Furthermore, Martin Luther King Jr. equates this view of black people as an inferior race to the fascist beliefs of Adolf Hitler. With this in mind, King establishes how racism continues to exist despite its evil nature and raises the question of why Americans allow such prejudice to persist when it is similar to the ideology of one of the most evil men in the world.
Once Martin Luther King Jr. establishes how racism continues to exist in American society, he goes on to declare that passively waiting will not be sufficient in putting an end to it. King states that progress “comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation” (King, The Other America). For this reason, King condemns those that are apathetic and indifferent and declares that the time is always right to do right, calling all citizens to actively engage in the struggle to end systemic racism.
Considering how legislation such as the Civil Rights Act have not been effective, demonstrated by segregation, redlining, and income disparity in the present, it would seem that laws are incapable in truly putting an end to racial segregation. Nevertheless, Martin Luther King Jr. firmly believes in the importance of continuing to create more policies and legislation for the reason that it is “true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law can’t make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also. And so while legislation may not change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men when it’s vigorously enforced” (King, The Other America). With the preceding statement, King suggests that legislation and policies haven’t failed at addressing the issue of economic injustice, rather the disparity is caused because the laws are not enforced by the government or police. Nonetheless, King also acknowledges the limitations of legislation; in addition to a more rigorous enforcement of the law, an ‘integrated society’ requires for its citizens to maintain a strong sense of morality and to properly address the aspects of their lives that cannot be enforced.
Secondly, in addition to better enforcement and an increase in policies, Martin Luther King Jr. is also a strong advocate of the First Amendment, the right to petition the government through the use of peaceful protests and nonviolence. Contrary to the beliefs of fellow activist Malcolm X, while King sympathizes with those who feel as if “they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention … [he is] absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt” (King, The Other America). In other words, riots, violence, and rebellion would only confirm and justify white Americans’ fear of the African American community. Rather than inaction or violent resistance, King believes that members of society should learn to identify issues and come together to peacefully protest.
Lastly, Martin Luther King Jr. raises the idea that the government has not done enough to integrate African Americans into American society after the era of slavery. In light of this, King proposes the Poor People’s Campaign, a “$30 billion antipoverty package that includes a commitment to full employment, a guaranteed annual income measure, and increased construction of low-income housing” (White, Ch 13). By suggesting policies such as the guaranteed annual income, King seems to favor the transition into a democratic socialist government. King justifies this policy by equating the circumstances of black individuals to that of a wrongly imprisoned convict released after a long period of time with nothing to get started on life on a sound economic footing. Consequently, the antipoverty package would serve as a means for reparations and would also help improve the socioeconomic status of black Americans.
Using the analogy of the wrongfully imprisoned convict, this policy is crucial in addressing economic injustice especially because the system of capitalism that America has currently adopted incentivizes companies to cut expenses without regards to creating a sustainable economic system that addresses the welfare of all citizens to maximize profits. In the novel Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community”, King goes on to state that “we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent” (King, 2010, 191). Therefore, it is imperative to prioritize the ending of segregation as the low income and unemployment that accompanies it plays a significant role in contributing to the white American perspective that black Americans are inferior.
In conclusion, Martin Luther King Jr. believes that racial segregation is the ultimate cause of the economic disparity that occurs today, therefore, ending segregation is of utmost importance in the effort to lessen the gap in wealth between black and white Americans. Furthermore, King also reasons that both races are ‘brothers’ in one another as they share elements of culture and because both have contributed significantly in the development of America as we know it today. Throughout his career, he emphasizes how racism continues to remain prevalent in society and proposes several methods to put an end to it: peaceful protest, improved enforcement of legislation, the implementation of policies such as the Poor People’s Campaign, and the possibility of transitioning into a democratic socialist government.
Jr., King Martin Luther Dr., et al. Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (King Legacy). Illustrated, e-book, Beacon Press, 2010.
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Jr., King, Martin Luther. “The Other America”. Stanford University, 04 April 1967
Mendez, Dara D., et al. “Institutional Racism and Pregnancy Health: Using Home Mortgage Disclosure Act Data to Develop an Index for Mortgage Discrimination at the Community Level.” Public Health Reports (1974-), vol. 126, 2011, pp. 102–114. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41639310. Accessed 16 May 2021.
Reardon, Sean F., and Kendra Bischoff. “Income Inequality and Income Segregation.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 116, no. 4, 2011, pp. 1092–1153. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/657114. Accessed 3 May 2021.
White, Deborah Gray, et al. Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans, with Documents. Second, e-book, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016.