In events today marking the 50th anniversary of the landmark March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a host of notables will be center stage, including President Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Oscar winners Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker.
They’ll surely note the progress many black Americans have made since the 1963 march, whose high point was the Rev. Martin Luther King’s ringing “I Have a Dream” speech. But despite being the embodiment of black progress, they’re also likely to point out that for too many of their race, King’s dream has yet to be realized.
Unemployment among black Americans is almost double the national average. Blacks are only 13 percent of the U.S. population, but black males comprise 38 percent of all prison inmates.
According to census and other data compiled by Bloomberg News, blacks lag behind whites on virtually every measure: income, economic mobility, housing, education, even life expectancy.
Too many still are living, as King put it that day a half century ago, “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” In fact, the proportion of blacks in poverty is roughly double white poverty — where it was in 1963, despite overall increases in prosperity for both.
Much of the talk today will be on jobs bills and voting rights. But the single one factor that could do the most to erase the chasm between black and white is education. There’s a reason it has been called “the great equalizer.”
It’s no secret that too many students of all races graduate high school still lacking in important skills. The testing company that administers the ACT college-readiness test says that nationwide, only about 26 percent of this year’s high school graduates who took the test have the reading, math, English and science skills they need to succeed in college or a career.
But the figure is much worse for black students who took the test: 5 percent. And note: These results only apply to students motivated enough to take a grueling standardized test.
The results on Washington state’s standardized tests reflect the same disturbingly wide racial gap. Despite educators’ increased focus on minority children in recent years, they continue to test much lower than the average.
Family dynamics and early education play important roles in the so-called “opportunity gap” that keeps so many black children in poverty. Focusing on strengthening families and providing pre-kindergarten learning opportunities could go a long way toward closing the gap. Raising educational levels is the true path toward realizing King’s dream.