Dedrick Asante-Muhammad

Martin Luther King's dream requires we overcome 'our fantasy of self-deception'

The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American Society is essentially hospitable to fair play and steady growth toward a middle-class utopia, embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately, this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity. Overwhelmingly America is still struggling with irresolution and contradictions…”

-    Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?   Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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The Racial Wealth Divide Holds Back Black Earners at All Levels

It's no secret that there's a vast divide between the economic fortunes of black and white Americans. A new paper by the Equality of Opportunity Project attempts to shine a new light on just how hard that gap is to close. The study looked at the diverging fortunes of black and white men, and boys in particular. It found that even black men with affluent upbringings often fared worse than white men who grew up poorer.

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The Economic Fallout Has Decimated the Black Middle Class

To judge from most of the commentary on the Gates-Crowley affair, you would think that a "black elite" has gotten dangerously out of hand. First Gates (Cambridge, Yale, Harvard) showed insufficient deference to Crowley, then Obama (Occidental, Harvard) piled on to accuse the police of having acted "stupidly." Was this "the end of white America" which the Atlantic had warned of in its January/February cover story? Or had the injuries of class -- working class in Crowley's case -- finally trumped the grievances of race?

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10 Ways to Bail Out Wall Street (and Main Street) Without Soaking Taxpayers in Debt

As Congress debates the particulars of the Bush-Paulson bailout, one key question has gone largely unexplored: Who will pay for this mess?

Lawmakers in Congress appear to have assumed that the federal government will simply borrow more money to foot the bill for the bailout. The national debt ceiling will rise to a whopping $11.3 trillion, up from $8 trillion a year ago.

But this rush to borrowing merely shifts the bailout burden onto the backs of future taxpayers. Congress needs to change course -- and develop a "pay as we go" plan that makes Wall Street pay.

The lion's share of bailout funding should come from the high-finance gamblers and the wealthy CEOs who have so profited from our casino economy.

Funding the Bailout: Basic Principles

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Race and Extreme Inequality

The current presidential campaign has sparked a lot of conversation about race, but it has primarily been at the symbolic and interpersonal level. It has failed to probe the underlying substance of racial economic disparities and the slow rate of progress toward equity in wealth and wages. Too many Americans naïvely see the strong presidential candidacy of Illinois Senator Barack Obama as evidence of the resolution of the racial divide.

Since 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the income gap between blacks and whites has narrowed by just three cents on the dollar. In 2005 the median per capita income in the United States stood at $16,629 for blacks and $28,946 for whites. At this slow rate of progress, we will not achieve income equality for 537 years. And if politicians continue to dismantle government checks on income and wealth concentration, even these modest gains may be reversed.

Extreme inequality in the overall economy exacerbates income and wealth disparities between whites and people of color. These disparities remain shockingly wide and especially evident when we examine the polarization of assets and wealth in the United States. The black homeownership rate, for instance, sits at 47 percent and the Latino rate at 49.7 percent, compared with 75 percent for whites.

African-American families in the United States have a median net worth of $20,600, only 14.6 percent of the $140,700 median white net worth. The median net worth for Latino families is $18,600, only 13.2 percent of median white net worth. Between 1983 and 2004, the most recent year for which official federal data are available, median black and Latino wealth inched up from 7 percent to 10 percent of median white wealth. At this rate, we will not achieve wealth equality for 634 years.

Even more disturbing, the tiny wealth gains of recent decades are evaporating as the subprime mortgage meltdown continues to spread. According to Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data, blacks are three times as likely as whites to have received a subprime loan and four times as likely to have refinanced from a subprime lender. Figures for Latinos are just as depressing. According to the Center for Responsible Lending, Latinos will lose between $75 billion and $98 billion in home-value wealth from subprime loans. Blacks will lose between $71 billion and $92 billion. United for a Fair Economy has called this family net-worth catastrophe the "greatest loss of wealth for people of color in modern U.S. history."

The subprime fiasco is rippling through communities of color like miniature Hurricane Katrinas. And we are witnessing only the beginning of the impact: foreclosure, displacement, family upheaval, the devaluation of entire neighborhoods, eroding local tax bases, the decline of local services.

Our nation needs to make a dramatic reinvestment in broadening wealth and opportunity -- for all Americans. In the decades after FDR's New Deal, such investments -- including low-interest home-buyer loans, grants for college education and small-business subsidies -- helped tens of millions of families enter the middle class. But these wealth-building programs directly or indirectly excluded people of color. They thus bolstered the economic supremacy of whites, continuing the American legacy of racist inequality.

Since the end of legal segregation and discrimination, we have not seen comparable government investment programs that could benefit people of color. We urgently need such programs, including matching savings plans to build assets and purchase homes. We can afford them -- but only if we stop investing America's resources in the wealthiest people, leaving the rest of Americans to survive on a trickle.

Sharpton, Obama and the Promise of America

Forty years after the Democratic National Convention refused to seat an integrated delegation from Mississippi led by Fannie Lou Hamer, the Democratic Party and the nation as a whole still finds itself challenged by African-American Democrats to create a more inclusive society.

Reverend Al Sharpton, former Democratic candidate for president, described the promise of America in his address at the Convention. "The promise of America says we will guarantee quality education for all children and not spend more money on metal detectors than computers in our schools... The promise of America provides that those who work in our health care system can afford to be hospitalized in the very beds they clean up every day."

Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama provided a healthy balance between public and individual responsibility – a balance that so often eludes public policy discussions. Obama affirmed the government role in creating the ladder of opportunity. His white grandfather went to college on the GI Bill and got an FHA mortgage, programs that most often were not open to African-Americans at the time. It is ironic that Obama, who may have the opportunity to be the only black U.S. Senator next year, exemplifies not only black excellence and diligence but also white privilege.

This white privilege seems to be taboo in public discussion. It is usually concealed with the racist rhetoric that white Americans are more prosperous because they worked harder and upheld better moral standards. In recent years, Charles Murray's book The Bell Curve and Ronald Reagan's demonization of the welfare queen have helped keep these stereotypes on the public stage.

When it comes to the racial divide in this country and de-facto white supremacy, the primary cause is not the moral behavior of blacks, or the types of music we listen to, it's institutionalized racism.

African Americans with graduate degrees are two to three times more likely than whites to engage in the rough-and-tumble world of entrepreneurship with small business start-ups. Employed black workers work more hours per week and per year than white workers.

When sociologist Dalton Conley analyzed educational outcomes, he found that family net worth, not race, was the best predictor of high school graduation and college enrollment. At a given level of assets, black students are actually slightly more likely to graduate from high school than white students. The drop-out rate for black students has declined 44% since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yet African Americans have not been rewarded for all this effort. For every dollar of per capita white income, blacks had 57 cents in 2001, up from 55 cents in 1968. The racial wealth divide is even worse: the typical black family has less than one-tenth of the median white net worth of $120,000.

In the decades when white income and wealth soared, it was not only due to hard work and talent. It was because of public investment in a ladder of opportunity. The New Deal and the generous post-WWII veterans' benefits largely excluded people of color. Since that time, public investment in opportunity has eroded. Federal spending on affordable housing was cut by three-quarters in the 1980s, and the majority of families of color have been unable to achieve the American dream of homeownership.

Obama and Sharpton, in their speeches, stressed that government must be held responsible for its failures and for countering discrimination. They also both stressed that citizens must be responsible for taking hold of these opportunities. As Mr. Obama asserted, "with just a change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all."

Rev. Sharpton articulated how, from Crispus Attucks to Fannie Lou Hamer until today, African-Americans have been at the forefront of demanding opportunity for all Americans.

Let us all work to continue the African American tradition of both living up to our own personal responsibilities and demanding that the government live up to its promise.