Our leaders have finally managed to extend unemployment benefits to the long-term jobless. But a look into jobless numbers reveals which folks are still stuck in the ICU, nowhere near the economic "recovery" some pundits are ready to declare. African Americans are twice as likely to be shut out of making a living than whites, with unemployment rates of 15.5 percent, when the overall rate is 9.7.
As even an American school kid can tell you, before Martin Luther King Jr. died, he had a dream. The details of that dream may be hazy, but most of us recall it had something to do with judging people based on content of character, not color of skin. It was a dream of integration. Not just the bus-seating, lunch-eating kind. It was the hope for something far greater and, inexcusably, still unattained.
King's dream of true integration means not just a process but outcomes, not just access but results -- because, let's face it, the realities of our stratified economic system indicate there's something about the rules in place that just aren't equal. If we're serious about giving everyone the ability to determine his or her future and achieve it, we're talking about the distribution of resources. To have any real meaning, integration requires an economy that works for the majority of people. What we have now is a color-coded obstacle course of our (and our parents, and their parents, and their parents) making, granting whites a short-cut to security and prosperity while blocking African Americans from clearing the starting gate.
In the good old days of 2007, median net worth for a white family was $170,400, and $27,800 for an African American one. We've heard this described many ways: a racial wealth gap, a divide, a chasm, a canyon so wide you might think it's a national landmark. This language accurately conveys our separation. Our economy is a demarcated space that puts whites in one place and African Americans in another.
But this description focuses on effects. It doesn't tell us why one group is stuck on the side of poverty, unable to cross to the riches on the other. This has enabled the myth that some get ahead while others fall hopelessly farther behind because of a lack of individual effort. It obscures the truth: we've made our economy a moving sidewalk to help propel whites along in the "right" direction while African Americans are left treading against the tide. If you refuse to see this sidewalk, your view is simply one of white faces advancing (some running ahead to outpace the rest) with black and brown ones moving disruptively in the opposite direction. It's inexplicable at best and, more often, reason to blame the worst off for their inability to move forward.
What makes up this sidewalk? It's a lack of teacher training, experience and consistency in mainly minority schools, where teachers stay through the year 57% of the time, compared to 82% in mainly white schools. It's a lack of food security, twice more likely for children of color than their white peers. And it's being born and raised in poverty, a state that black and brown children confront 300% more than whites.
The notion of an economic divide has created the belief that we live in two separate, and therefore separable, economic universes. If there's a gap, then most whites are safely on the good side. In implying that African Americans are separate, we've allowed the unutterable to take hold among the privileged: phew! glad it's not us. Advocates for bridging this divide may have done a little too well in convincing the public to see economic disparities in the terminology of division.
In reality, there's only one economy. Those who do poorly, mostly people of color and those born without means, facilitate the ability of others to do well. People who work create value -- a small portion of which the "working class" gets back in what's treated as the benevolent gifts bestowed from a merciful employer. But let's put the horse before the cart, where it belongs. Workers make enterprises possible and profitable and their pay checks are a mere share of the value they create.
The truth of our economic reality is not that of a canyon. We're all occupying a shared space and all dependent upon a shared -- though by no means fixed -- pool of resources.
Until we recognize our economy is singular, and fix the man-made mechanisms that make navigating it easier for some and difficult or impossible for others, we won't succeed in really integrating our country. For blacks and whites to sit at the same lunch counter, they have to be able to afford the same meal.
Anat Shenker-Osorio is an Oakland-based communications consultant.