Civil Rights Falls Short Without Political Economy

Alton Drew | 1/17/2012, 12:37 p.m.

All this weekend, participants in the old civil rights movement will remind us of the struggles for equal rights: how some marched with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.; how beneficial the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is; how the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is still under attack; how much more work we need to do. This is an annual exercise we've all become rather accustomed to over the years.

One thing for certain is that there is work to do. For example, according to the U.S. Department of Labor unemployment for Black Americans is 15.8%, more than double the 7.5% unemployment rate for White Americans. There is nothing new about that narrative. The unemployment rates for Blacks and Whites have never been the same, nor should we expect them to equate any time soon.

The U.S. Bureau of the Census reports that between January 1972 and December 2011, Black American unemployment has been in the single digits 117 months out of 480 months over that time period. Over that time period, White unemployment has never been in the double digits.

More telling as to Black America's economic state is the wealth gap. Data from the Census Bureau and the Pew Research Council shows that the gap in net worth between Blacks and Whites has continuously increased even through the recession of 2007-2009.

The Census Bureau estimated that the gap in net worth between Blacks and Whites stood at $42,231 in 1991. By 2002, the gap had grown to $69,641. Ironically, this was after the 2000-2001 recession, but the net worth of Whites actually increased during this period ($58,716 in 2000 to $75,087 in 2002) while the net worth of Blacks fell ($6,166 in 2000 to $5,446 in 2002). In 2004, the gap in net worth stood at $89,375 according to the Census Bureau. The wealth gap, according to Pew Research, peaked at $122,868 in 2005, and fell to $107,472.

Entrepreneurship is seen by some Blacks as the meal replacement for lost income. Since 1998, the gap in business equity has been widening as well. In 1998 the gap was $4,550, but by 2000, the gap had closed to zero. The 2000-2001 recession may have taken a toll because by 2002, the business equity gap rose to $5,000. The gap has continued to widen. By 2005, data from the Pew Research Council showed the gap to be $9,558 while the gap in 2009 stands at approximately $15,000.

But while Black Americans have made big leaps in political representation and landmark civil rights legislation, has Black America sufficiently leveraged these advancements in civil rights to make the necessary changes in the political economy that creates an environment for Black wealth?

If we were to base the answer on the differences in wealth levels between Blacks and Whites, arguably, the answer is no. The above information on the wealth gap may give fodder to advocates for more policies aimed at getting capital into the hands of minorities, particularly minority businesses.

On the other hand, proponents of a more conservative policy approach may argue that there are sufficient private and public sector mechanisms in place to get capital into the hands of African Americans. It may be a problem of not so much what government can provide as opposed to getting information about capital accumulation into the hands of entrepreneurs.