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"Commentary on the Kahlenberg-Marvit Article: Ross Eisenbrey"

January/February 2013 issue of Poverty & Race

Vice President, Econmoic Policy Institute,

I disagree with a fundamental premise of the article. The premise is that the Civil Rights Act has so improved the status of black Americans that we should use the same legal model to improve the status of workers. But as the authors note, Dr. King did not accept that legal rights, even backed by strong sanctions, are enough. We have to judge the success of the Civil Rights Act with a yardstick that includes economic progress: “People must not only have the right to sit at a lunch counter, but also the right to afford a hamburger.”

However great the improvements for African Americans have been in legal rights and social relations, the economic gains have been less impressive:
  • In January 1966, the ratio of black median family income to white median family income was 60%. Forty-five years later, in January 2011, the ratio was virtually unchanged: 63%.

  • The ratio of median household wealth among blacks and whites has worsened over the past three decades, falling from a tiny 6.6% in 1983 to an even tinier 5.0% in 2010. Even in absolute terms, median black household wealth is less today than in 1983.

  • The homeownership rate for black families was 45% in 2011, essentially unchanged since 1975, the first year for which we have racial data.

  • And by some measures, residential segregation is no less today than it was in 1950.
I support much stronger sanctions for employer violations of employee rights to organize, to bargain collectively, and to strike. But the economic results obtained from the Civil Rights Act make me skeptical that the authors have found a silver bullet. I believe much more powerful tools will be necessary to restore these rights and make them as effective as they were in the 1940s and 1950s.

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