Despite blacks' gains, battle is far from won

February 24, 2004|By Steny Hoyer, Elijah Cummings and Kweisi Mfume

THE REV. MARTIN Luther King Jr. once observed that "injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere."

And today, as we reflect on the past, present and future of the African-American community, Dr. King's wise words ring truer than ever.

February holds special meaning. During the month, and indeed throughout the year, we encourage all Americans to honor the lives of African-American trailblazers who have helped pave the way for future generations. We commemorate Black History Month and the advances our nation has made due to the civil rights movement.

On Feb. 12, we marked the 95th anniversary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization. And on May 17, we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

We have good reason to celebrate the victories of the last century. However, the undeniable and indefensible economic and social disparities in American society compel us to look honestly at the challenges that confront America's minority families.

The job market in America is a very tough neighborhood. This morning, 9 million of our fellow Americans woke up without a job. Another 5 million are working part time when they'd rather have full-time employment. The manufacturing sector has lost more than 2 million jobs in the last three years and has suffered job losses for 42 consecutive months.

Minority households have borne the brunt of our so-called jobless recovery. In January, for example, the national unemployment rate fell to 5.6 percent. However, unemployment in the black community rose to 10.5 percent, more than double the white unemployment rate of 4.9 percent.

The challenge for middle-class families is not limited to jobs. black families have seen their median household income fall by 3 percent, nearly twice the reduction experienced by white families (1.7 percent). And studies show that the wage gap between whites and minorities has actually widened over the last 40 years.

Why the decrease in household income? It is because there is an increasing disparity in pay between the jobs that our nation is losing and the few that are being created. The Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, recently reported that jobs being created pay about 21 percent less than the jobs they replace. Growth industries such as health care pay 26 percent less than those industries that are losing jobs such as the auto industry. And adding insult to injury, growth industries offer reduced benefits and pensions.

Additionally, while increases in productivity have raised corporate profits and put a smile on Wall Street's face, part-time work is up and health insurance benefits are down -- particularly for minority families, which account for more than half of the 43 million citizens without year-around health insurance.

The fact is, after the creation of 22 million jobs during President Bill Clinton's eight years in office and a decrease in disparity, economic inequality is back with a vengeance.

The solution lies not only in creating new and better jobs for all Americans, but also in addressing the continuing disparities in our educational system.

Today, fewer than 80 percent of African-Americans have completed high school. By comparison, nearly 90 percent of white Americans have high school diplomas. Only 17 percent of black students earn college degrees, while 29 percent of white students complete college.

Resolving these disparities means investing in Head Start, fully funding the No Child Left Behind Act and increasing after-school programs for our young people. Our resolve is firm, and we will continue to work on these problems until they are solved.

February is a month of commemoration for African-Americans. But it's also a time to critically examine the issues that continue to face our nation and minority families. So long as there is work to be done, we should never be content to rest on our laurels.

Steny Hoyer, the Democratic Whip in the House of Representatives, represents Maryland's 5th Congressional District. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat, chairs the Congressional Black Caucus and represents Maryland's 7th Congressional District. Kweisi Mfume is president and CEO of the NAACP.

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