California Forum

What would Martin Luther King, Jr., think of Stephon Clark and all that hasn’t changed?

The annual explosion of cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin envelops the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, Thursday, April 5, 2018. This month marks 50 years since the revered civil rights leaders was assassinated. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
The annual explosion of cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin envelops the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, Thursday, April 5, 2018. This month marks 50 years since the revered civil rights leaders was assassinated. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) AP

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is an occasion for asking: What would he think if he could see the country today? King was born in January 1929 and was only 39 years old when he was killed. It is certainly possible to imagine him alive now at age 89.

If King were alive, he would be dismayed, but likely not surprised at the continuing deep racial inequalities in American society. Today, 22 percent of African-Americans and 20 percent of Latinos live below the poverty level, as compared with 9 percent of whites.

King, of course, did not know Stephon Clark or Michael Brown or Eric Garner or Laquan McDonald or Walter Scott. He would be saddened, but not shocked to learn of their fate at the hands of the police.

Nearly 40 percent of African American children live in poverty – a black child born today has a 4 in 10 chance of being born into an impoverished family – as compared with 14 percent of white children. While the median income level of African-American families has increased over the last two decades, it is still less than two-thirds that of white families. Moreover, middle-class blacks earn seventy cents for every dollar earned by middle-class whites, but they possess only fifteen cents for every dollar of wealth held by middle-class whites.

King, of course, did not know Stephon Clark or Michael Brown or Eric Garner or Laquan McDonald or Walter Scott. He would be saddened, but not shocked to learn of their fate at the hands of the police.

Today, an African-American man is nine times more likely to be killed by the police than others in society. An African-American man is five times more likely to be killed by the police than a white man. Hispanic men are nearly twice as likely to be killed by police as white men.

King would be upset that approximately 20 percent of African-American men between ages 20 and 30 are in some form of government custody – prison, jail, probation or parole. As President Barack Obama explained: “A large body of research finds that, for similar offenses, members of the African American and Hispanic communities are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, and sentenced to harsher penalties.”

King would be distressed to see that American public schools are increasingly racially segregated. From 1964 to 1988, public schools became less racially segregated each year. But since 1988, largely as a result of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, public schools have become more segregated with each succeeding year. In fact, UCLA professor Gary Orfield has documented that they are becoming resegregated at an accelerating rate. Public schools today are at the same level of desegregation as in 1972, four years after King’s death.

The legacy of slavery, the history of race discrimination in every corner of society, the continuing racial inequalities, all make it impossible for this country to be post-racial. And it is impossible to see things getting better with Donald Trump as president.

He has created the whitest administration since Herbert Hoover in the 1920s. About 80 percent of Trump’s nominations for top positions have gone to white men. His nominations for federal judges reflect the same pattern: In his first year in office, 91 percent of them were white and 81 percent were male.

The policies of the Trump administration are likely to make racial inequalities worse. Aggressive enforcement of drug laws, as being pushed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, inevitably means disproportionately more African-American and Latino men will be incarcerated. The Sessions Justice Department has ended the practice of using a federal law to sue police departments to implement reform when there is a pattern of civil rights violations. The Department of Education’s push for more charter schools will further segregate public schools.

In my pessimistic moments, I worry whether it ever will get better. When was the last time a president said that society needs to address the problem of poverty and take actions to help the poor? When was the last time a president said that school segregation is a problem that has to be addressed?

But I also am reminded of Dr. King’s words, “The arc of the moral universe is long and bends towards justice.” Racial inequalities are pervasive and persistent, but the Jim Crow laws that Dr. King fought against are gone. There is a widespread recognition, in companies and universities if not in the Trump administration, of the essential need for diversity.

If Dr. King were alive today at age 89, he would remind us of the racial progress over his lifetime, but also of how far there still is to go. He would quote the words of the old spiritual and tell us that we will overcome. Someday.

Erwin Chemerinsky is dean and professor of law at the UC Berkeley School of Law. He can be reached at echemerinsky@law.berkeley.edu.

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