Toward Genuine Equality
Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday, January 15, is timely in the context of the upheavals happening in the United States. Remembering this courageous and thoughtful man has allowed me to review his works. One of his speeches is pertinent today as it was in 1967, over 50 years ago. He gave the speech titled “The Other America” at Stanford University on April 14, 1967. I highlight some of the key aspects of his speech that remain relevant today. MLK stated that there were two Americas, one “overflowing with the miracle of prosperity and the honey of opportunity” and the other America “perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” I believe two Americas have been in existence in this country for some time. Although it is a cliché, the rich has been getting richer, and the poor poorer. Poverty occurs to people of various races/ethnicities; however, it is inescapable to see the disproportionate level of poverty for some racial/ethnic minorities. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, in 2019 American Indian/Alaska Native (24.2%) and Black/African Americans (21.2%) had the highest rate of poverty in the United States, followed by Hispanic Americans (17.2%). The rates for Whites and Asian/Pacific Islanders were the lowest and similar (9% vs. 9.7%, respectively). I am sure these numbers are higher right now.
King highlighted that the issue of race is embedded into these two Americas. As a result, to address poverty requires that racism must also be addressed. They are intertwined. Unfortunately, some people prefer to keep them separate, reframing White poverty differently than Black or Brown poverty. Those who are poor and White have been told that their poverty is because of racial/ethnic minorities (Merritt, 2017). Black and Brown immigrants are taking their jobs and dreams. For racial/ethnic minorities, they have been told that it is their fault that they are poor. They have not worked hard enough (Gilens, 1996).
King indicated that addressing racism without addressing poverty maintains the racism and masks the maintenance of inequality. His words reflect this struggle: “it’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good, solid job.” He stated, “we are struggling for genuine equality.” I agree with him on all accounts. It is a struggle and it is difficult to achieve genuine equality. Some people believe, including his late daughter, Yolanda King (1989), that MLK’s focus on poverty was why the “bullet came.” Focusing on the struggle of poverty across races closes the schism between racial groups, which encourages them to work together against the common enemy (inequality). This year I am dedicated to focus on “the other America” and to push toward genuine equality. King’s focus was not on the extremists, but on the everyday challenges of living that the poor experience, especially racial/ethnic minorities. I challenge others to take up this goal as well. How to become an anti-racist has been the mantra of the past year (and seemingly 2021 as well), but my mantra will be “genuine equality.” Taking on poverty means to take on racism as well. I have only highlighted the tip of MLK’s speech. I encourage you to either read or watch it. It is compelling either way. I will be re-watching or re-reading it through out the year to glean further gems of wisdom. Join me in the fight for genuine equality.
Beverly J. Vandiver, Ph.D
Interim Executive Director
Professor, Human Development and Family Sciences
Director, Quantitative, Methodology Center