In the summer of 1963, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the Lincoln Memorial facing our nation’s Capitol and proclaimed,
“. . . America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.”
Disaffected with monumental oppression in both the Jim Crow South and the less visceral but still extremely racist North, Dr. King, with several other Black civil rights and faith leaders, organized and led hundreds of thousands in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The March’s aims were to spotlight racial disparities in employment, policing, voting and more, and to catalyze systems change to eradicate these disparities.
What followed was the passage of unprecedented and monumental legislation to protect and advance the civil and voting rights of Black Americans, and reason to hope that significant change would come. Yet, 60 years later, very little change has come, particularly with respect to equity in jobs, wages, and wealth — the primary drivers of economic security.
Today, in America, while unemployment hovers around 50-year lows, a Black worker is nearly twice as likely to be unemployed than their White counterpart. And, even when working, a Black worker is about twice as likely to earn no more than the federal minimum wage—a paltry $7.25 an hour.
More Black people are graduating high school and college than ever before, narrowing racial gaps in educational attainment significantly to 2%. Yet, while critical to securing employment with higher wages, diplomas and degrees do not ensure wage parity among Black and White persons. With equal levels of education, Black workers still face wages that are 20% lower. With comparable schooling, qualifications, and work, on average, a Black person makes nearly $11,000 less a year than a White person.
For Black women specifically, the disparities are greater, particularly when they are highly educated. On average, a Black woman with an associate’s degree makes over $10,000 less a year than a White man with a high school diploma only; a Black woman with a bachelor’s degree makes nearly $10,000 less yearly than what a White man with an associate’s degree only; and a Black woman with a master’s degree is paid approximately $20,000 less a year than a White man with a bachelor’s degree only. In short, the more she’s educated, the less she’s paid fairly.
Earning a college degree is still a prudent economic decision for Black Americans because their wages are higher than they otherwise would be. However, because of generations of wage deprivation and inequity, which have contributed to racial disparities in savings and wealth-building, Black college graduates have, on average, $25,000 more in debt than White graduates, and less in savings for a rainy day and retirement.
As if on autopilot, the cycle repeats: student loan debt plus lower wages plus a higher likelihood of being unemployed equals persisting income and wealth inequity, reinforcing disproportionate poverty from childhood until the end of life. Sadly, today, the words of my father, William Augustus Jones, Jr., who served as Chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, New York, and Operation Breadbasket, in 1979 still ring true:
“116 years [now 158], after slavery Blacks have access without assets, and freedom without finance, which is tantamount to existence without equity.”
Dr. King and the leaders of the movement understood that racism was a most effective tool for upholding an unjust form of capitalism, and they did all within their power to dismantle it. 60 years ago, they unwaveringly bore this burden. Today, we must do the same. We must march again August 26th in Washington, DC at the 60th anniversary; continue fighting for legislation to reinstate and safeguard voting rights, privacy rights, and justice reform; and dismantle economic barriers such as the outdated poverty measure that uphold structural injustice.