“I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.”
So stated the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1962.
Class and race boundaries have a lot of rigidity. In combination with geographic boundaries, they separate people and foster misinformation, stereotypes, and fear.
The 1917 report from Wilder Research on health and housing in Saint Paul showed a concentration of unacceptable conditions in a central city area that we currently call the Thomas-Dale neighborhood. Seventy years later, data we analyzed for use by community groups showed that children living in roughly that same area more likely lived in poverty and had lower educational outcomes than children had in other neighborhoods. Use Minnesota Compass today to compare income levels and other characteristics across neighborhoods in Saint Paul, and what neighborhood district will you find at or near the bottom? (Hint: the same one that showed up in Wilder Research data a century earlier.)
In 1967, Dr. King noted the lack of progress for Black citizens.
“Negroes generally live in worse slums today than 20 or 25 years ago. In the North schools are more segregated today than they were in 1954 when the Supreme Court's decision on desegregation was rendered. Economically the Negro is worse off today than he was 15 and 20 years ago. And so the unemployment rate among Whites at one time was about the same as the unemployment rate among Negroes. But today the unemployment rate among Negroes is twice that of Whites. And the average income of the Negro is today 50% less than Whites.”
How much change has occurred since then? The Brookings Institution highlights research showing how race and economic disparities persist into the 21st century and fuel educational disparities that threaten our society. Reflecting the importance of economics, which Dr. King identified, they note that poverty-based segregation and race-based segregation contribute to the educational disparities we witness today. In fact, segregation based on poverty appears statistically to account for differences that we sometimes attribute to the effects of race and racial discrimination.
What maintains these rigid boundaries that produce separation with deleterious consequences? We can easily point to outspoken racists and advocates of segregation, of course. Dr. King recognized and confronted the visible, tangible elements of racism. He also faced observable white backlash. However, overt attempts to maintain inequality only partly explain our longstanding social problem.
Another insidious, though less visible, element also explains the persistence of economic and social disparities: a form of “backlash” that occurs through complacency. People who want to do good, but seek to avoid too much disruption occurring too rapidly in the status quo, can impede progress as much as vocal opponents of change.
“I'm absolutely convinced that the forces of ill-will in our nation, the extreme rightists in our nation, have often used time much more effectively than the forces of good will. And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words of the bad people and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say wait on time. Somewhere we must come to see that social progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals. And without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so we must help time, and we must realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”
Let’s acknowledge that we need to win a Super Bowl of real life – much more important than the mere football game that takes place a couple of weeks after today’s important holiday. We cannot let the forces of evil play the clock to win, or we will experience a lose-lose for humanity.