ASHRAF PATEL writes that Martin Luther King Day should be a time for critical reflection on the dire state of African Americans.
Each year, on January17, Martin Luther King Day is celebrated as a national holiday in the United States to commemorate the great civil rights leader who was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
This year’s commemoration is particularly significant as it came when Congress was trying to pass key legislation to broaden voting rights.
For months Martin Luther King III, the son of the civil rights leader, joined activist organisations in an intensive campaign for voter reform.
While Congress was debating, the real story was on the streets of Washington DC where hundreds of activists marched to protect the voting rights of Black Americans for the Deliver for Voting Rights campaign.
‘We’re working to restore the very voting rights protections my father and countless other civil rights leaders bled to secure,’ said King’s eldest son who marched with his wife Arndrea Waters and 13-year-old daughter, Yolanda Renee King.
‘We will not accept empty promises in pursuit of my father’s dream for a more equal and just America.’
The campaign calls on President Biden and Congress to end the filibuster (a delaying tactic rooted in the Jim Crow era), as well as pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
Sadly on January 19, Senate Republicans plus two Democrats effectively blocked Congress from moving forward on voting rights legislation, and Democrats failed to get 50 votes to change the Senate rules to move forward with the legislation with a simple majority.
The dramatic night started with the Senate first voting on whether to end debate on the voting rights legislation, a move that failed to get the 60 votes needed to move the bill forward, thus ensuring an era of stifling filibustering for years to come.
Sixty years of civil rights campaigns has seen the democratic rights of African Americans and other marginal groups eroded in the famed rigged political system that is the US today. As civil rights stagnate, structural socio-economic conditions worsen.
Compare this with the reality that during the COVID-19 pandemic the top 10 US billionaires, Zuckerberg, Bezos, Gates, Musk et al have doubled their wealth!
To give credence to the view that the Democratic Party and Republican Party are two sides of the same coin, the Obama Foundation graciously received a $100 million from Jeff Bezos of Amazon. Obama did not mind that the vast wealth accumulated by Bezos and Amazon is on the backs of cheap labour in Amazon warehouses, union busting, as well as its famed tax evasion model that has rigged the Washington political system for years, ensuring that Amazon pays the lowest taxes in DC.
As Hillary Clinton quipped when receiving a $ 300 000 donation from Goldman Sachs during her 2016 campaign: ‘Well, that’s what they offered me?’
It is this attitude by the elite of the Democratic Party – merrymaking with huge donations from corporates while the same time calling for campaign finance reforms – that exposes this bizarre contradiction time and again. Fundamentally, they have abandoned the working and middle classes for decades, both symbolically and structurally.
The killings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, and the sustained campaigns of the Black Lives Matter movement, has occupied the daily activism and struggles of ordinary African American communities for years, with very little change in policing methods, and the shoot to kill attitude of many white police is the default. The conviction and sentencing of their killers is a step in the right direction and gives some hope but as always too little, too late.
The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified these inequities. Writing in the Health and Human Rights Journal Martina Vasquez Reyes observes: ‘Approximately 97.9 out of every 100 000 African Americans have died from COVID-19, a mortality rate that is a third higher than that for Latinos (64.7 per 100 000), and more than double than that for whites (46.6 per 100 000) and Asians (40.4 per 100 000). The over-representation of African Americans among confirmed COVID-19 cases and number of deaths underscores the fact that the coronavirus pandemic, far from being an equalizer, is amplifying or even worsening existing social inequalities tied to race, class, and access to the health care system.’
In terms of infrastructure development, President Joe Biden’s trillion-dollar signature Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) was welcomed and crucial for regional development. But a recent study by the Brookings Institution raises some pertinent questions on certain ‘built in inequities’ of the Biden bill.
Noting that on his first day in office Biden signed an executive order on racial equity and under-served communities, followed by the Justice 40 executive order, which seeks to deliver 40% of overall benefits from relevant investments to disadvantaged communities, they contend that ultimately these are administrative rules, not law. They further dissect that the nature and financing of the IIJA has inherent racial inequalities built into it. The majority of IIJA funds go to current and new funds that are provided to states through established criteria or formulas, hence reinforcing the complex cycle of lobbying by powerful interests to the detriment of marginal communities.
In the domain of small business finance, the case is even more dire. Another study by the Brookings Institution shows that the median US white household has $188 200 in wealth; nearly eight times more than the median black household’s $24 100. While 54 per cent of healthy or stable’ white-owned small businesses had borrowed from a bank in the past five years, only 33 per cent of similar black-owned businesses had done so, the Federal Reserve found in its last small business survey before the pandemic.
It further analysis the inherent bias in small business lending with overall fewer than one in four of black-owned employer companies had borrowed from a bank, and that figure fell to one in 10 for sole proprietors. Meanwhile, nearly 14 per cent of black households had no bank accounts at all, compared with 2.5 per cent of white households, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. ‘Bootstrapping since the day I started’ Black entrepreneurs tend to bank on themselves – even when they have worked in financial services.
Years after the global financial crisis and the Occupy Wall Street movements there is little financial reform, and black communities are still redlined in terms of social housing and investment and small business opportunities.
The reality for the majority of African Americans – 60 years after the great Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech – is that they are not living even the decent American dream but languishing – as Malcolm X described – in the American nightmare.
- Ashraf Patel is Senior Research Associate: Digital Economy with the Institute of Global Dialogue in Johannesburg.