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Racial Gaps Still Wide This King Holiday

Distributed on Wednesday, January 15, 2003 by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service

by Holly Sklar

"When the Constitution was written, a strange formula to determine taxes and representation declared that the Negro was 60 percent of a person. Today another curious formula seems to declare he is 50 percent of a person," Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his 1967 book, "Where Do We Go from Here?"

"Of the good things in life he has approximately one-half those of whites; of the bad he has twice those of whites," King continued. "Negroes have half the income of whites...There are twice as many unemployed. The rate of infant double that of whites."

How wide are black-white gaps today?

Black per capita income is 62 percent of whites--mirroring the 1787 Constitutional formula that counted slaves as three-fifths of a free person in determining each State's apportionment of taxes and Congressional representatives.

Slaves were about half the workforce that built the White House and U.S. Capitol. Today, millionaires are much better represented in Congress than African Americans.

At least 170 senators and congresspeople are millionaires, but there are no black senators and just 37 black members of the House of Representatives (out of 435). The U.S. population is more than 12 percent black. About 1 percent of Americans are millionaires.

The typical white family has more than 11 times as much net wealth--assets minus debt--as the typical black family. White families had median net wealth of $94,900 in 2001, according to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. Black families had just $8,500, including home equity.

The black poverty rate is almost triple that of whites. The official 2001 black poverty rate was 22.7 percent--nearly one out of four people--compared to 7.8 percent for non-Hispanic whites.

Adjusting for inflation, the typical full-time black male worker made less in 2001 ($31,921) than the typical white male worker made in 1967 ($33,704). The median 2001 income for white full-time male workers was $40,790. The typical full-time black female worker made just $27,297 while white women made $30,849.

Black unemployment is twice that of whites. The official 2002 unemployment rate was 10.3 percent for blacks and 5.1 percent for whites. The unemployment rate only counts people who are actively looking for work, not those who have given up. If the overall unemployment rate were 10 percent, Congress would consider it an emergency.

Numerous government and nongovernmental studies have documented continued racial discrimination in employment, education, health care, housing, insurance and lending for mortgages, businesses and farms.

In a revealing 2002 speech, Franklin Raines highlighted the denial of black asset-building through slavery, the broken promise of "40 acres and a mule," segregation, violent dispossession of land and businesses, redlining and ongoing discrimination. In 1999, Raines became the first black CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation when he became CEO of the Fannie Mae company, the nation's largest source of financing for home mortgages.

Raines said if America had racial equality, African Americans would have nearly $200 billion more income, 2 million more college degrees, nearly 2 million more professional and managerial jobs, and 3 million more homeowners.

"If America had racial equality in wealth," Raines said, "African Americans would have $760 billion more in home equity value." They would have $200 billion more in the stock market, $120 billion more in retirement funds and $80 billion more in the bank. "That alone would total over $1 trillion more in wealth," he observed.

Racial disparities take their toll from birth to death. The black infant mortality rate is more than double that of whites. Whites born in 2000 have a life expectancy that is nearly six years longer than blacks.

In the days before his assassination, King was working hard for civil rights and economic justice, and looking ahead to the Poor People's March on Washington. He would be appalled that the Bush administration is piling on tax cuts for the already wealthy while communities around the country are laying off teachers, raising public college tuition, closing libraries, cutting health care and housing assistance, and undermining civil rights enforcement.

Where do we go from here? That's up to all of us.

Holly Sklar is coauthor of "Raise the Floor: Wages and Policies That Work for All Of Us" ( She can be reached at

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