Chasing the Dream of Equity

With this month marking 60 years since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a new Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report finds that post-civil rights era legislation has largely failed to address widening disparities in wages, wealth and homeownership for Black Americans.

Key findings include:

  • Racial wage and wealth gaps have persisted. A typical Black worker is paid 23.4% less per hour than a typical white worker, a wider gap than it was in 1973 (22.3%). Meanwhile, the typical white family has eight times as much wealth as the typical Black family.
  • Black workers’ wages have lagged productivity. While productivity broadly increased 61.7% from 1979 to 2020, Black workers’ wages grew only 18.9% over that period.
  • Black homeownership rates are lower now than in 1970. In 1970, the Black home ownership rate was 49.7%. In 2020, that rate was 45%.
  • Black workers’ unionization rates have dropped sharply. Historically, Black workers have had much higher rates of union coverage than white workers—but the gap has narrowed as union coverage rates have declined.
  • Black workers have experienced consistently higher unemployment rates. During the past 50 years, the annual Black unemployment rate has often exceeded 10%, while white workers have never seen an annual unemployment rate above 10%, even during economic downturns.

The report explores the policy demands the civil rights movement championed through the March on Washington and the Kerner Commission. The combined efforts of many moved the U.S. Congress to pass sweeping civil rights legislation to reverse oppressive Jim Crow laws and broadly combat discrimination against people of color. While this movement succeeded in removing key barriers to equal rights under the law, many economic demands were left unmet. Failure to address these has adversely impacted the economic security of people of color and exacerbated many of the longstanding racial disparities in economic outcomes present today.

“Many associate the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. 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,” said Adewale A. Maye, an EPI policy and research analyst and author of the report.

The report concludes with policy recommendations to safeguard the basic rights and freedoms of Black Americans. Racial economic inequalities will persist without legislation explicitly targeting and remedying the injustices left unresolved by race-neutral policies, which disregard the challenges that specific racial or ethnic groups face. The United States can achieve the dream of racial equity and justice through the implementation of race-conscious policies, with equity as a clearly defined and measurable policy goal.