August 28, 2013

King’s “I have a dream” speech, by the numbers

ST_13.08.22_MLK_260x260Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech 50 years ago today on Washington D.C.’s National Mall and Memorial Parks has become one of the most famous, and quoted, pieces of oratory in U.S. history (though that wasn’t apparent to everyone at the time). But how well have the aspirations King so memorably expressed been realized? We ran some numbers to try to find out.

Facts_1One hundred years later [after the Emancipation Proclamation], the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” — King

MLK-povertyPoverty rates among African-Americans has fallen considerably since the 1960s, according to Census Bureau figures, but they remain far more likely than whites or Asians to live in poverty. And after years of decline, the black poverty rate has crept higher over the past decade.

Facts_2We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.” — King

The 1950s and 1960s were the high point of residential racial segregation in the United States, according to analysis of Census data by Edward Glaeser and Jacob Vigdor of the Manhattan Institute. Though it’s declined steadily since 1970, racial segregation remains more prevalent than, say, segregation by income.

Social scientists use two key metrics to assess residential segregation: dissimilarity and isolation. “Dissimilarity” measures the extent to which two groups — for instance, blacks and whites — are found in equal proportion in all of a city’s census tracts; the number indicates the proportion of individuals of either group that would have to move in order for both to be evenly distributed. “Isolation” describes the racial makeup of the census tract where the typical person of a given race lives; the number indicates the extent to which that race’s share of the “typical” tract’s population exceeds its share of the city’s overall population. In both cases, higher numbers indicate greater segregation.

So, around the time King gave his famous speech, the typical urban African-American lived in a city where 80% of the black population would have had to move in order to be evenly distributed with non-blacks, and in a census tract where the black population share exceeded the citywide average by roughly 60 percentage points.

segregationThough dissimilarity and isolation both are lower than they’ve been in decades, the typical urban African-American still lives in a metro area where more than half the black population would need to move in order to achieve complete integration, and in a census tract where the black share of the population is roughly 30 percentage points higher than the metropolitan average.

Facts_3We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.” — King

The longstanding gap between black and white turnout rates in presidential elections began narrowing in the late 1990s, as the black voting rate rose and the white rate plateaued and then began to fall. Barack Obama’s candidacy in 2008 and 2012 doubtless contributed to that trend: Last year’s election was the first in which black voter turnout exceeded that of whites.

Facts_4I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.” — King

MLK-speechThis month’s Pew Research Center report on the state of U.S. race relations found that by and large, most blacks and whites say the two races generally get along well, though whites (81%) are somewhat more likely than blacks (73%) to say so. The survey suggests that overall perceptions of black-white relations haven’t changed since Pew Research last asked the question (in November 2009); about three-quarters of both blacks and whites in that earlier survey said the two races get along very or pretty well.

Facts_5I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” — King

The current Pew Research survey found that majorities of blacks still perceive discrimination from many institutions in their communities, and are consistently more likely than whites to say blacks are treated less fairly than whites.

Seven-in-ten blacks said blacks were treated less fairly in dealings with the police, versus 37% of whites who said so; almost as many blacks (68%) said blacks were treated less fairly in the courts. About half (54%) of blacks, versus 16% of whites, said blacks were treated less fairly at the workplace, a share that’s been rising since the late 1990s. And just over half (51%) of blacks, compared with 15% of whites, said their local public schools treated blacks less fairly.

On the other hand, blacks were about equally divided as to whether blacks in their communities received equal treatment from stores, restaurants, doctors and hospitals, and at the voting booth.

Topics: Voting Issues, Race and Ethnicity, Poverty, Discrimination and Prejudice

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.


  1. Lee Johnson4 years ago

    Specific to point # 5: The dream that the day will come that as a nation we will not judge others by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. This brings forth my comment as to whom in this nation is bringing forth judgment. I believe all Americans have the responsibility to further this dream. So I struggle with President Obama’s comment regarding the Martin – Zimmerman incident. I recall him saying”if I had a son he would look like Trevon”. Thus judgment is made by the color of his skin. The content of character, Trevon’s, has been reported to be that he was a thug, was involved in drugs and gang activity, quit school and that his mother had kicked him out of her house. I fight with myself to look towards character and not color with mixed results, however when leaders – President and civil rights activists – continue their focus on color, I question their belief in the dream and wonder as to its realization.

  2. OspreyDave4 years ago

    The divide between segments of our society will continue to exist until we, as a society, decide to be intentional about ending it for the good of us all. However, that intentionality must occur on an individual basis, and it must be embraced by all segments of our society. We must teach our kids to choose their friends without regard to ethnicity or status. More importantly, we must set the example for them. How often do we hear people say things like, “I have lots of (fill in the blank) friends”. Yet ask those same people when they have gone out socially with those supposed friends, and the defense mechanisms kick in. Better yet, ask them when the last time was they had one of those “friends” to their home for dinner, and there is just stoney silence.

    Most people are just not comfortable around those who are different from them, and not just different in color. Until we literally force ourselves to get uncomfortable and put ourselves into situations we’d rather not be in, and develop a whole new set of friends, I just don’t see the societal landscape changing much, because to make it happen, ALL segments of society must want to participate. It’s just too easy to leave work and go home to our families and leave the world behind. Unfortunately, I don’t see much headway toward real change in our attitudes toward one another. Too many people just don’t see what’s in it for them.

  3. James H. Bullock4 years ago

    I do not really believe that it is racism I believe it is behaviorism. The African American that feel they are discriminated against has different culture. They often even speak differently by using what is referred to as Ghetto lingo. Like Bill Cosby said, he could not understand them. It is this difference that separates them from the whites. Take for example the Gangster Rap Music, whites find that offensive and do not want to have their children listen to it. They refer to women as bitches and seem to imply that women are good for nothing except sex. This is not acceptable to most women and the white culture; however African Americans that accept the white culture have no problems. Look at Tiger Woods, Condoleezza Rice, Clayton Powell and many others.
    Also, I think that the claim of racism used by certain groups to further their own agenda, have led the African Americans to believe they are being discriminated against when they are not. For example, I was traveling out of state and I stopped at a Tourist place. They had books with advertisements for motels and such. One motel offered rooms at a very reasonable rate. I stopped at this motel around 4:30 PM and asked for a room at that rate. I was told that they were all occupied. There was not a single car in the Motel lot except for mine. Now an African American would claim that the motel discriminated against him, but a white would believe either the motel had indeed rented rooms for the night by reservation or that the motel was falsely advertising a room that they did not intend to rent at that price just to get people to stop. Then the motel would rent them a more expensive room claiming that was all they had left.

    1. Foxy Miller4 years ago

      Why do some blacks purposely give their children names that will separate them apart from mainstream America and have the effect of making others in both the white and more educated minorities feel like not wanting them as friends. I taught with a highly educated black woman who had two grown children who had names like Frank or Susan or Kimberly. But she told me that having those names caused them to be rejected as “uncle Tom’s and “Mammies” by people who named their children Tyrone or LaShonda.

      She commented to me that the most significant thing the Civil Rights Movement did for blacks was to separate them into two dissimilar groups at a time when the most important need was solidarity. The group with the “ghetto” names, in effect, have created a whole new set of “slave names” for their children that continues to separate them from mainstream society as economic slaves instead of the legal slaves that they were before the Civil War.

      The house slaves before the Civil War were named Frederick (as in Douglass) and were educated along side the sons of the slave owner. The field slaves were named “Big Sam” and “Willie May” and were illiterate. We have the same thing today except that they are enslaved to the federal government instead of the slave master.”

    2. lisa joann3 years ago

      I completely agree with you James also it seems if you haven’t noticed that there is never ever a case about for example of previous chain of tragedies of all the police having to shoot black kids and all and having everyone shout RACISM! it could be i dunno but have you ever heard about anyone shouting that if a black cop supposedly unjustly shot a white kid no i did’t think so and you know it’s not like the cops celebrate or anything about what they’ve done.

  4. Warner Saunders4 years ago

    White males have enjoyed unwritten and unchallenged Affirmative Action for nearly 300 years in America.
    The recent Affirmative Action laws have benefitted one ” minority” group far more than any other…….No, not those lazy “unqualified” blacks and other minority groups who took your job.
    A crass answer to you would go like this: That little white lady you sleep with every night represents , by far, the greatest number to benefit from the recent Affirmative Action laws…
    So shut your mouth and enjoy the extra income brought to your house by the little lady.
    And while I’m at it, your white American brothers cash more welfare checks than any other minority….Doesn’t that really stink…..Pew!

  5. Ed Bradford4 years ago

    Some statistics would seem to indicate that some things have not changed at all.

    Are just as many blacks living in poverty? Are just as many black men ( %-wise ) in prison? Yes!

    But why is that the case? Maybe it is precisely because MLK’s DREAM HAS BEEN realized (to a large degree), and people ARE being judged by the “Content Of Their Character”, and NOT just by the color of their skin!

    Maybe it’s precisely because when police, judges, teachers, employers, and others judge people, it is no longer just because of the color of their of their skin. Maybe there are more blacks living in poverty because more blacks do not finish high school, or if they do, the criteria for completion is less than it used to be? Maybe more blacks are in prison simply because more blacks commit crimes.

    For those blacks who have elevated themselves, there is no evidence that they are being judged just by the color of their skin. The President received a >70% approval rating! And the examples are endless of blacks succeeding in society! Whites WANT blacks to achieve and become successful so that they can overcome their “white guilt”.

    But because black children have been raised by single mothers (who were also raised by single mothers) for generations, and because the rate of births to unwed mothers is at an all time high of over 70%, the breakdown of the family has resulted in a lack of discipline in schools. That in turn, means lower academic standards, lower test scores, etc.

  6. joseph p.+mccormick,+2nd4 years ago

    I use Pew research in my research and scholarship. There are very, very few reliable sources of social science data quoted in academe and in the media like that made available from Pew. This recent contribution will be widely quoted and used this academic year (and in years to come). You have few competitors in what you do.

    1. tish4 years ago

      I think you mean they have few peers, not competitors.

  7. Harry Cauley4 years ago

    I have never seen where there is a difference between races treatment has been different. Never in stores, public schools, restaurants, police, health care, or voting. In everyone of these places of public areas, negroes I have known receive exactly the same as Caucasians.

    I have seen that negroes receive a different treatment within our political system other than voting. Since Obama has taken office if a negro is not a democrat they are treated as nonexistent or not rational or worthy of taking part in events such as MLK day gatherings. I find that very disturbing.

    1. tish4 years ago

      Anyone who still uses the term “negro” is still living in the 50s — when Rosa Parks couldn’t have a seat on the bus.

    2. jennifer2 years ago

      Using the word Negro is very rude

  8. Tom4 years ago

    It appears that “blacks” still perceive themselves as “victims” of the society that they live in and that they have helped to create.

  9. Tom4 years ago

    I was taught as an undergraduate that cultural changes happen basically two ways: either slowly evolving over multiple generations, or occuring fast via some sort of cultural revolution. In my belief, our society has experienced varying degrees of both. However, I also believe affirmative action has dumbed down the workforce and instigated some animosity among “non-minority” people who are thwarted from rising to success because of it. As long as sub-cultures that do not speak English are encouraged, they are doomed to difficulty in realizing the “American Dream.”

    1. Len Mfuasi4 years ago

      I have always wondered how so many white Americans seem to have what can only be considered “the inside scoop” on who and who did not get hired or accepted because of affirmative action. If I get a rejection letter from a prospective employer or college, or no response at all, how would I know everything about all those people who got accepted such that I can compare my credentials against theirs and draw negative conclusions? Furthermore, it was Southern Dixiecrats who derisively attached women to the affirmative action act, and the numbers reveal white women to have been the act’s greatest beneficiaries; yet I hear no complaints about white women whose credentials didn’t quite measure up. Only non-whites. Please educate me.

      1. Herb4 years ago

        Several weeks ago, a female anchor on CNN was interviewing Jesse Jackson, who was complaining about the Supreme Courts decision to modify the affirmative action ruling regarding college admissions. (This was related to a case before the court relating to a white female’s complaint that a black girl was admitted to a southern college instead of the white girl who had superior qualifications. Rev. Jackson felt the ruling would limit the educational opportunities of black students. The anchor pointed out the following: based on the much greater number of white women over black women in the country, there was a higher percentage of the available black college candidates currently in our colleges than the percentage of white candidates. And the same lopsided percentage existed for black over white women for those who graduated. Rev. Jackson’s response to those figures? Look how many years it took.

        Was he looking for justice or revenge?

        1. James Solomon4 years ago

          Group A four people have 25% admission rate and Group B one thousand people have 15% admission rate.

          Given a pool of very qualified people in each group which would you prefer?