Standing in front of an audience gathered at Grosse Pointe High School, a suburb of Detroit, in March of 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed, “There are two Americas.” One America was flowing with the “milk of prosperity and the honey of equality,” while another America lay steeped in “a daily ugliness…that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.” At the heart of the “other America,” according to King, was the economic problem: unemployment, underemployment, poor-paying, and poor quality jobs for a great number of the nation’s citizens – especially citizens of color.
In the decades since Dr. King made the “Two Americas” speech, median wages stagnated or declined for most Americans. Household incomes rose slightly, but only because more families became two-income homes (those increases, however, have been largely off-set by the rising cost of childcare for working parents). Low-wage, no benefit service jobs replaced better-paying manufacturing work. Housing prices and college tuition outpaced inflation, putting the promise of gainful employment and property beyond the grasp of an increasing number of Americans. And just as in King’s day, these painful circumstances disproportionately have affected citizens of color. In short, the gulf between the “two Americas” is expanding.
In September 2011, protestors calling themselves “Occupy Wall Street” rhetorically quantified the “two Americas” as the ninety-nine versus the one percent. Critics dismissed these protestors as envious and lazy with little grasp of the real world. Some politicians chastised their vocal protests as divisive, saying it was the product of a misguided logic – a logic that concluded the lack of wealth for some is the result of wealth unduly captured by others. In response to that logic, Senator Marco Rubio took to the Senate floor that December to say “We have never been a nation of haves and have-nots. We are a nation of haves and soon-to-haves, of people who have made it and people who will make it.” Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana echoed the mantra of “haves and soon-to-haves” during the Republican Party’s televised response to the State of the Union Address the following month. The point, it seemed, was to rebuff talk of income inequality by arguing that it was only a matter of time before everyone made good on the American dream – so long as they were willing to work hard. All you need is time and the determination to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
Dr. King dismissed the notion that time would eventually alleviate inequality, saying “human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.” He also rejected the pernicious myth of what he called the “bootstrap philosophy.” Congress, King noted, was more than willing to doll out federal subsidies to large scale farmers and businesses. Not much has changed on that front. Today, many lawmakers are similarly generous to corporate interests while simultaneously cutting aid to the most vulnerable members of our society. Take the enormous budget overages of the Pentagon’s contract with Lockheed-Martin to develop the F-35 fighter jet. Those budget overages attract little or no attention from the very legislators who, in the name of fiscal responsibility, trenchantly defend recent cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This despite the fact that just the budget overages alone in the fighter program would pay for SNAP cuts two to three times over, or that most SNAP beneficiaries are children, the disabled, the elderly, and the working poor. To make matters worse, the warplane is to be manufactured in Britain, not the United States, so Americans in need not only lose food assistance but are robbed of manufacturing job opportunities as well. Dr. King probably put it best when he said, “that appears to me to be a kind of socialism for the rich and rugged hard individualistic capitalism for the poor.”
Although King’s “two Americas” referred to economic and social conditions, perhaps the more critical cleavage, one that directly affects the success or failure of policy initiatives aimed at abating inequality, is a philosophical one. As a people, we seem to be divided into two camps: those who see the influence of structural factors in our lived circumstances, and those who disregard structural explanations for economic disparity. The champions of the “bootstrap philosophy” sometimes praise the pioneer spirit and individualism that settled the West and made America an industrial giant. Yet they ignore the land grants, irrigation works, coerced labor, legal innovations, and public investments in communication and transportation that made such growth possible. They fail to grasp the structural underpinnings of the success they admire, and so they also fail to see structural forces that contribute to poverty and want as well. Instead, anecdotes and nostalgic appeals to rugged American individualism confirm, in their eyes, that both success and failure are solely the result of personal character. Consequently, they reject government efforts to address inequality as aiding the undeserving. Unemployment benefits, for instance, have come under the axe in recent months, justified on the grounds that they diminish a person’s motivation to find work. The abiding logic being that those who are out of work just don’t want to work – as if joblessness today were a choice rather than the mathematical reality of too few jobs for the number of people seeking employment.
Low pay, lack of education, homelessness, and prohibitively costly healthcare – these are not moral failings or God’s punishment. Only by recognizing that individual choices and opportunities are circumscribed by structural realities will we be able to adequately address the widening chasm between prosperity and scarcity in our country.
As our nation continues to wrestle with the increasingly polarized social divisions and economic inequality highlighted by Dr. King more than four decades ago, perhaps his prescriptions for change offer us some guidelines. As he instructed his audience at Grosse Pointe to do in 1968, we must dispel ourselves of the myths of inevitable progress and “bootstrap” individualism, understanding that there are forces beyond the individual contributing to poverty and want. We need to recognize the potential of government as an institution for improving our lives. We have to reorder our national priorities in a way that values the care of the vulnerable over the incessant desire for war. And we must summon the courage to take direct action in the face of injustice. These were the lessons King sought to impart near the end of his life.
Although the man is now gone, his words and vision are as applicable today as they were that March day in 1968. They are words of our time, and of our society. King’s description of “two Americas” is as much a portrait of where we are now as of where we were then, and his hopefulness for change can be our hopefulness; his dream can be our dream – if we choose to stop making King a token and honor the message as well as the man.