On the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, African Americans still face systemic racism and inequality.
One in three black men will be imprisoned in their lifetime. In inner cities, there has been a seemingly unending string of high-profile police shootings of unarmed young black men. Sean Bell was killed by the NYPD one year ago, on his wedding day, in a hail of 50 police bullets in Queens. Khiel Coppin, only 18 years old, was killed in Brooklyn this past November while he was holding a hairbrush.
Black males are incarcerated at a much higher rate than whites, reaching as high as 14-to-1 in the state of Iowa. A 2002 study by the Justice Policy Institute discovered that more black men are in prison today than in college. In 1980, there were 143,000 imprisoned black men and 463,700 in colleges or universities. By 2000, there were nearly 800,000 black men in jail or prison and only around 600,000 in higher education.
Another ominous and disturbing incarnation of this systematic racism and inequality was seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Nearly two-and-a-half years later, the black and working poor of New Orleans are still under attack. In late December, a protest by housing activists outside a New Orleans City Council meeting was broken up by police using Tasers and pepper spray. Residents and community activists had shown up to oppose plans to destroy 4,500 public housing units in predominantly black areas of the city.
Many of the protesters have been locked out of their homes since the disaster, living under bridges in tent cities. More than 3,000 families that lived in public housing before Katrina are still scattered across the country, while the number of homeless people in the New Orleans area has doubled since Katrina to 12,000 (AP, 12/14/07).
Rents in the city have increased 45%, while jobs have disappeared (LA Times, 12/21/07). Now, private developers are hoping to take advantage of tax credits and replace public housing with more upscale housing (using the guise of “mixed-income” developments).
This is a clear example of how rich developers and their friends in government are willing to put profits over people, destroying affordable housing in order to make money through real estate development.
This will further aggravate the housing crisis for large numbers of poor and black families in New Orleans who can’t pay to live in the more expensive developments, forcing many of them out in the latest version of gentrification. To Bill Quigley, a law professor and New Orleans activist, “This is a government-sanctioned diaspora of New Orleans’s poorest African American citizens. They are destroying perfectly habitable apartments when they are more rare than any time since the Civil War." (Washington Post, 12/8/06)
New Orleans is being rebuilt as a tourist attraction, catering to the wealthy and white at the expense of the poor and black. If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he would be outraged by what he would see.