Yesterday the country celebrated Martin Luther King Day. While Dr. King is well known for his efforts to combat racial inequality, his focus on poverty is less known, largely on account of his untimely death.
Shortly before his assassination, Dr. King turned his attention to highlighting endemic causes of poverty beyond racism, such as persistent unemployment and low-paying jobs that failed to pay living wages. He also noted that more whites lived in poverty and received public benefits than any other racial group, a historical fact that is still true today.
In the year 2012, with a bi-racial president and supposedly democratizing technologies, there is no denying that racism still plays a role in our society. Indeed, blacks and Hispanics are significantly more likely to be poor than people of other races. However, the fact that poverty impacts people of all races is undeniable. And while it is a cause many of us have dedicated ourselves to, our intentions thus far exceed our results.
Every now and then I see people debating whether we should focus on racial disparities, or if instead we should turn our attention to the larger enemy of poverty. As someone who has not been the victim of racism or poverty, I don’t think I am in a position to say that one is necessarily worse than the other. Indeed, while I am all for the use of metrics to improve the effectiveness of social outcomes, I do not find it productive to compare which is the worse of two evils.
Neither was Dr. King, which was the brilliance of his anti-poverty message. The data is clear that racial minorities are at a greater risk of poverty. That was true in the 1960s and it is true today. But while minorities are at a greater risk, there are significantly more whites living in poverty and receiving public benefits than any other racial group.
And while poverty is not color-blind, it is equally unforgiving to all its victims. So, can we think about poverty irrespective of race? I don’t think so. There is just too much evidence suggesting a strong link between poverty status and race. But race is not the only predictor of poverty, far from it.
As we move forward in our work, we need to be mindful of the racial elements of poverty – but to accept as Dr. King did, that there are factors beyond racism that affect people regardless of race. Whether one’s focus is on improving educational opportunities for all children or breaking down racial stereotypes that create barriers to employment, we are all working toward the same vision of a word free of poverty and full of mutual respect.
Photo credit: US Embassy New Delhi