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Income inequality: A continuing American problem

Melvin B. Miller | 7/10/2014, 6 a.m.
“I’m celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as well as the 4th of July.” Photo by Dan Drew

The Fourth of July is the time to reflect upon the inspiring words of the Declaration of Independence — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Now the nation’s growing income inequality has created a sense of economic unfairness that deprives Americans of their happiness.

Such deliberation was especially poignant this year because it is also the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One had to wonder why it took the nation 188 years to abide by the spirit of its Great Declaration. Even more compelling is to understand the political strategy that induced the U.S. Congress to outlaw racial discrimination in employment, education and places of public accommodation.

Whites had accepted the social system enunciated in 1848 by Sen. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. “The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black,” he stated on the Senate floor. “And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” Consequently, whites have generally come to believe that they are innately superior to blacks.

However, life has changed from the agrarian days of Sen. Calhoun. In the modern, industrial America of today, “upper class” is a term more restricted to the beneficiaries of the “American Dream.” Achievement of the wealth resulting from this privilege has eluded more whites than the media record usually acknowledges.

Poverty is often viewed as a black affliction because the percentage rate for blacks who are poor is higher than whites. However, the actual number of whites living in poverty in America is twice the number of blacks, 26.2 million to 13.0 million, according to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation. And the percentage of whites and blacks who have ever received food stamps is equivalent to their relative percentages in poverty, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.

Whites are also now benefitting from other programs once considered to be especially for blacks. Now that a college education is considered to be essential for a prosperous future, more whites are attending colleges and universities that were originally established for blacks. Only 40 percent of the students enrolled at Lincoln University in Missouri are African American and 82 percent of the students at West Virginia’s Bluefield State College are now white. The color of the students at HBCUs is changing.

The nation’s growing income disparity has caused many white Americans to wonder whether they are truly privileged. Workers’ wage rates have been relatively flat since the 1970s. According to a 2011 study by the Congressional Budget Office, the income of the top 1 percent of households increased by 275 percent between 1979 and 2007. The gain has been less than 40 percent for the middle class.

There is a strong sense among both blacks and whites that the economic system is unfair. Some whites express their disdain by joining the Tea Party. Others find the Occupy Movement more to their liking. Still others simply utilize programs to aid the indigent regardless of race. Polls indicate that a majority of Americans want the income disparity problem resolved.

The irrepressible campaign for civil rights for blacks in the 1950s created a national crisis. A coalition of white and black organizations was formed to heal the country and force policy makers to live up to the nation’s highest tenets. This effort resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

America faces another critical challenge today, the establishment of economic equality. Only the effort of another multi-racial coalition will be effective in developing the sense of economic fairness that is now so elusive.