Progress exists, but Dr. King’s dream remains deferred

Sixty years ago this week, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic speech in Washington, D.C., in which he dreamed that one day his four children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character.”

While much progress has been made in realizing King’s dream, America still has a ways to go to live up to the self-evident ideals etched in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” This was made painfully clear this weekend when a white man gunned down three Black people at a Dollar General store in Florida.

The Jacksonville sheriff, who reviewed the gunman’s racist writings, said the 21-year-old shooter “hated Black people.”

The killings join a long list of mass murders fueled by racist hate, including a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store in 2022, a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in 2019, and a Charleston, S.C., church in 2015, where the white man who slaughtered nine people in a Bible study group said the massacre was “worth it.”

» READ MORE: America has gone backward since George Floyd | Will Bunch

The murders are part of a broader rise in hate crimes against people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and Jews. The surge in hate crimes coincided with the rise of Donald Trump, whose incendiary rhetoric has fueled violence.

But it is not just overt racism that prevents King’s dream of a nation that will “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” The systemic racism baked into many parts of society keeps many Black and brown people living on “a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

A recent analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found that the Black-white homeownership gap is wider than 30 years ago. In fact, Black people are now nearly three times more likely to be denied a mortgage than white people.

Persistent and illegal redlining that still exists in Philadelphia further destabilizes neighborhoods and prevents African Americans from building long-term generational wealth. Fed researchers suggested policies that increase the supply of affordable homes, access to mortgages, and raise incomes for Black residents.

Health disparities underscored during the pandemic are another legacy of systemic racism, studies found. Babies born in North Philadelphia have a life expectancy that is 20 years less than that of babies born just a few miles away in Society Hill.

Black men have the shortest life expectancy of any population group in Philadelphia because of high rates of homicide, cardiovascular disease, drug overdoses, cancer, and death in infancy, a 2019 report found.

The Affordable Care Act has reduced the rate of uninsured people across all demographic groups and significantly closed the racial and ethnic gap in access to health care, especially in states that expanded Medicaid coverage.

But poverty rates — which are higher for Black and brown residents in Philadelphia — are directly tied to health disparities, studies show. Expansion of the child tax credit slashed child poverty by 30%, but the program only lasted for six months in 2021, largely due to opposition from Republicans and some Democrats.

There is a bipartisan effort in Congress to restore the child tax credit, a proven way to reduce poverty and improve long-term health in both urban and rural parts of the country. Additional steps are needed to close the gap and ensure high-quality care for all through public policies and awareness.

» READ MORE: Congress can help keep kids out of poverty | Editorial

In his speech, King said the “quest for freedom” left many “battered by the storms of persecution” and “staggered by the winds of police brutality.” The unevenness of law enforcement is routinely laid bare by video of police shootings and beatings of Black and brown victims, from Eric Garner to Michael Brown to Freddie Gray to Breonna Taylor to George Floyd and many others — including Eddie Irizarry in Kensington on Aug. 14.

But the systemic racial and ethnic disparities are most starkly seen in state prisons. Black people account for 13% of the U.S. population but are almost half of all inmates. A recent report by District Attorney Larry Krasner that examined nearly 300,000 criminal cases found that Black people in Philadelphia are overrepresented at every stage of the legal system, from car stops to arrests to incarceration. Indeed, the number of wrongful convictions disproportionately affects Black people.

On Aug. 28, 1963, King said, “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” Sixty years later, that reality remains elusive.

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