First Person

In light of dangerous inequality, it’s time for “dangerous unselfishness”

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Low-wage workers in Boston rally to oppose Andrew Puzder as nominee for Secretary of Labor in January 2017. People of color, especially women, are disproportionately represented in the low-wage workforce. Mary Babic / Oxfam America

Nearly 50 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, his words ring more clearly than ever.

Minor Sinclair is the director of Oxfam’s US program

The year my (white) family moved to Auburn, Alabama was the year that the school system was desegregated. It was 1971.  I entered the sixth grade in a school that had just been converted from the “black” high school to an elementary school accommodating all races. At the same moment, white parents of 50,000 Alabama schoolchildren pulled their kids out of the public system and enrolled them in hastily designed private schools meant for whites only.

At 12 years old, I didn’t see the dimensions of it all. I recognized that informal social codes kept whites and blacks apart (except in sports), and I knew that most Alabama private schools were founded to keep blacks out. But I didn’t appreciate what this divide meant for all of us, white and black, as we moved forward. While King and his movement desegregated the public schools, social attitudes and economic realities kept blacks and whites living (literally) on opposite sides of the train tracks in Auburn.

After high school graduation, we re-segregated. I went to a private liberal arts college, while many of my African American peers went to work (often in physical labor jobs) or, at best, earned sports scholarships to the local college. One African-American acquaintance, Tony, every bit as talented as I, went to work for the town hauling garbage.

I’m still haunted by how the river of opportunity that divided us: one fast current flowed to higher education, great opportunities and vacation homes, while the other branch dried up on the rocks of physically debilitating jobs and economic hardships.

“There are two Americas,” noted Dr. King in 1968. “In [one] America, millions of people have the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality flowing before them… But there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.”

Nearly 50 years have passed since he spoke those words, but today we still feel the ugliness of inequality. The “racial wealth gap” is stubborn, and wide. On every measure of economic and social well-being, African-Americans do worse than white Americans. African-Americans are more likely to be poor, be out of work or hold low-wage jobs, and to experience homelessness and hunger. African-Americans live shorter lives, and black children are much more likely to live in single-parent households. Disparities in wealth and incarceration are particularly stark.

Stupefying gaps between the really rich and nearly everyone else threaten to tear the very fabric that unites us as a country. In a new report, “An economy for the 99 percent,” Oxfam shows that the gap between rich and poor is far greater than had previously been estimated. In fact, eight (white) men own the same wealth as half the world. In the US, the one percent controls 42 percent of the wealth.

The depth and breadth of poverty has terrible implications for all of us. As Dr. King himself asked in 1965, “What good does it do to eat at a lunch counter, if you can’t buy a hamburger?”

Economic injustice

What Dr. King dubbed “the evil of economic injustice” resonates today for whites as well as people of color. Our 2016 report Few Rewards showed that, while blacks and Latinos are more likely to hold low-wage jobs, it’s still true that most low-wage workers are white–and most of the people in poverty are actually white.

Hundreds of thousands of civil rights activists marched from the Washington Monument to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August, 1963.
Hundreds of thousands of civil rights activists marched from the Washington Monument to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August, 1963.

Oxfam’s program in the Gulf Coast has brought me back to my home state of Alabama, as well as the left-behind communities of Mississippi and the bayous of Louisiana.  I’ve worked closely with communities that lost homes in Hurricane Katrina, and people who lost jobs to economic downturns and forces they didn’t understand. I understand the skepticism of poor people in this region about government that seems to betray them at every turn.  For example, Mississippi each year makes the confounding decision to return $21 million in federal funds for the needy back to Washington, DC.

“I’d rather do something for my community here, with our own sweat equity, than go to Baton Rouge [the state capitol] to plead for help that doesn’t come,” said Rev. Tyrone Edwards, a leader from a bayou community in Louisiana which is 80 percent black.

Sadly, Martin Luther King would recognize all too well the economic and racial divisions which continue today. However, he was a man who never lost hope. He never lost sight of the dream.  He never lost faith in the innate humanity of individuals to overcome.

In his last speech in Memphis, Tennessee–where he was supporting the strike of sanitation workers for a living wage and was assassinated the next day–King pleaded to the world, “Either we go up together, or we go down together. Let us develop a new kind of dangerous unselfishness.”

Imagine what this world would look like if we all developed a dangerous unselfishness–here privilege and self-interest don’t trump the common good.

Take action now and tell Congress and President-elect Trump to fix our broken system that lets the richer get richer while the rest get left behind.

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