In the civil-rights era that will be celebrated with the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, the cause of equal opportunity was framed largely in the soaring language of moral justice.
King’s epic address to the March on Washington 48 years ago this Sunday (the anniversary was the intended backdrop for the ceremony, since postponed due to Hurricane Irene) arguably had more influence on 20th-century American life than any other speech delivered by a private citizen. At its heart was an impassioned call for America to finally fulfill its highest ideals by establishing equality under the law for all its citizens. “We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation,” King declared. “So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
Those words ring as powerfully today as when King presented them. Yet the fundamental reason for the nation—and particularly for its white majority — to embrace equal opportunity for African-Americans and other minorities has shifted from equity to self-interest. The cause of providing an equal chance to all, which was historically framed as a question of fairness, has become an issue of economic competitiveness.
Here’s why: America’s changing demography means that African-American, Hispanic, and other minority youth will provide all of the projected future growth in the nation’s labor force. If we don’t do a better job of equipping them with education and skills, we won’t produce a workforce capable of attracting good-paying jobs. And if we don’t do that, we won’t generate the payroll taxes needed to fund Social Security and Medicare for the retirement of the predominantly white baby-boom generation. There is no way to ensure economic security for the swelling number of aging whites without expanding economic opportunity for the burgeoning population of young minorities.
Since King’s day, discrimination has been erased in law. And although that has not eradicated racial prejudice in practice, it turned out William Faulkner was wrong in his grim prediction that government could not legislate what is in men’s hearts. Laws have helped to shape attitudes over the years, a dynamic reflected in such trends as polls showing preponderant public acceptance of interracial marriage.
Economic progress for minorities is undeniable as well. Measured in inflation-adjusted dollars, the median income for African-Americans has increased by about two-thirds since 1964 — a somewhat greater rise than whites have experienced. The proportion of blacks in poverty is nearly two-fifths lower today than then. The share of young African-Americans with high school degrees has grown from just over half in 1967 to four-fifths now; the share of adult African-Americans with at least a four-year college degree has increased since 1964 by a factor of five. Hispanics, who have supplanted blacks as the nation’s largest minority group, have also achieved substantial gains by all of these measures.
And yet the disparity between these groups and whites remains daunting. The median income for blacks and Hispanics is still only about three-fifths of the level for whites; the poverty rate for both is about twice that of whites. Perhaps most ominous are the continuing racial gaps in education. The share of blacks with four-year college degrees remains only two-thirds the level for whites; fewer than half as many Hispanic adults as whites hold degrees. That disparity helps explain why federal figures show that African-Americans still earn about 20 percent less in weekly wages than whites, and Hispanics make about 30 percent less.
That imbalance is reason to question whether the nation has fully cashed the check King presented it. But the inequities can no longer concern just minority communities. Minorities already constitute nearly half of Americans under age 18 and will soon grow to become a majority. Brookings Institution demographer William Frey calculates that through 2020, the number of minorities in the workforce will increase by 15 million and the number of whites will decline by 5 million.
If the nation can’t equip more black and Hispanic young people with advanced education, Frey projects that the total share of Americans with college degrees will actually decline in the coming decades, reversing an unbroken advance since World War II. In an information-based global economy, that would mean consigning steadily more Americans to low-wage work — which would impose greater strain on the Social Security and Medicare programs funded by taxes on those wages.
So all Americans now have a direct stake in helping more minority young people, whether they attend college or not, to acquire the education and skills they’ll need to compete for good jobs. That isn’t just a matter of spending more money; it requires diligent education reform and finding more creative ways to compensate for the decline of the two-parent family, especially in the African-American community. Inevitably, it also means investment in schools, health care, training, and tuition aid for a diversifying future workforce that won’t meet international standards without it. Unless the nation honors that check, all Americans eventually will pay a price.