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Charlene Crowell
Published: 18 August 2023

While the 1963 March on Washington brought more than 200,000 Americans to the nation’s capital in a historic call for jobs and economic justice, an event billed as a ‘continuation’ - not a commemoration will take place August 26 at the Lincoln Memorial. Co-sponsored by the National Action Network and the Drum Major Institute, organizers will focus on continuing the age-old fight for democracy, social justice, and civil rights.

New research released this August shows that despite brief periods of progress, the goals of economic opportunity remain out of reach for much of Black America. The research author argues that the nation needs race-conscious policies that explicitly target the historical and systemic economic inequality that denies many people of color the opportunity to build wealth and economic stability.

Chasing the dream of equity: How policy has shaped economic racial disparities, delves into how public policy and economic conditions have failed to heed the 1963 call for justice.  Published by the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the report reveals a disturbing economic landscape despite the enactment of a series of laws intended to bring economic parity for all.   

“Many associate the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” said Adewale A. Maye, policy and research analyst at EPI and author of the report. “What is often forgotten, however, are the marchers’ urgent calls to raise the minimum wage, build affordable housing, and strengthen voters’ rights—sweeping reforms that could transform American lives. Although we have made strides in racial equity, there are miles to go before King’s dream is a reality.”   

Some key findings:

  • The typical white family has eight times as much wealth as the typical Black family. 
  •  A typical Black worker is paid 23.4 percent less per hour than a typical white worker, a wider gap than it was in 1973 (22.3 percent).  
  • Black workers’ wages grew only 18.9 percent from 1979 to 2020, when productivity broadly increased 61.7 percent.   In 2020, 45 percent of Blacks owned their homes, down from 49.7 percent in 1970.   
  • During the past 50 years, the annual Black unemployment rate has often exceeded 10 percent, while white workers have never seen an annual unemployment rate above that level - even during economic downturns.   

These nagging racial economic disparities persist, according to EPI’s report, due to a combination of factors includinga stagnant minimum wage (last raised in 2009), and systemic factors such as occupational segregation, discrimination in hiring and pay, and inequitable pathways to promotion. In 2022, 14.3 million people – only 10 percent of wage and salary workers – belonged to a union, the lowest percentage on record according to the US. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  

In particular, the report points out the failures of a trio of federal bills enacted between 1972 and 2014 that were intended to foster diverse and inclusive labor standards; but each fell far short of that goal.   

Race-neutral solutions don't resolve structural racism

The Equal Opportunity Act of 1972 amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to address employment discrimination against Black Americans and other racial minorities. Within its provisions, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was authorized to take enforcement action against individuals, employers, and labor unions that violated the employment provisions in law. But decades of inadequate funding and resources, along with a shift in the agency’s focus away from class action racial discrimination litigation to more narrowly tailored bias cases against individuals, restricted the agency’s capacity to pursue valid charges or proactively challenge discriminatory practices.   

In 1982, the Job Training Partnership Act was enacted to provide job training and other services to economically marginalized groups to improve employment and earnings, increase educational and occupational skills, and decrease welfare dependency. But even the federal Government Accountability Office documented racial disparities in its implementation. While white participants received both classroom and on-the-job training, Black participants were either given job search assistance or trained for low-wage jobs.   

In 2014, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act became an attempt to improve the lives of unemployed and underemployed workers. By targeting education – largely by encouraging completion of secondary and beginning post-secondary education – participants would gain long-sought economic opportunity and the chance to live free from government assistance. Even so, the Department of Labor reported that Black Americans had the highest participation rates but the lowest earnings of all persons completing the training.   

“Think what that means for someone who’s trying to afford rent, or a car payment, or student loans or whatever it may be,” David Cooper, director of EPI’s Economic Analysis and Research Network, noted in a CNBC interview. “That’s an enormous difference in that person’s quality of life.”   

To remedy these and other economic ills, the report calls for lawmakers to stop relying solely on race-neutral policies that fail to effectively address problems rooted in racism. Instead, EPI urges race-conscious policies with equity as a clearly defined and measurable policy goal.   

“Many of the pressing issues that motivated the March on Washington have yet to be resolved. Most policies enacted since then have offered race-neutral solutions that cannot tackle the enormity of structural racism,” states the report. “Policymakers need both targeted and race-conscious policies to address the root issue of racism within U.S. institutions, make scalable investments in eliminating racial inequality, and achieve genuine racial equity.”   

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