January 17, 2012
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On August 28th, 1963, two years before I was born, Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Dr. King’s call for racial equality was delivered to over 200,000 supporters during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was a defining moment in the American Civil Rights Movement, and considered the top American speech of the 20th century. Yesterday we celebrated Dr. King’s birthday and we continue to reflect on the ideals for which he so fervently stood.
As I reflected on the importance of today’s date, I could not help but ask what Dr. King would think as he surveyed the progress we have made over the past fifty years and the challenges that lie ahead. At the time of Dr. King’s death, the civil rights movement was increasingly focused on issues of economic justice, and indeed the March on Washington was for jobs and freedom. Imagine what Dr. King would think if he could read Don Peck’s recent article in the Atlantic on the “thinning of the middle class.” In 1963, our nation had already begun to move away from manufacturing and towards a service/knowledge based economy. The effects of this shift, including its impact on the middle class, were not yet apparent then. Over the past five decades, these effects have become very clear, and they should be deeply concerning to all.
1963: In front of 170 W 130 St., March on Washington
The global economy increasingly values higher levels of skill and knowledge. If you can acquire those skills and knowledge, you have a much better shot at earning a decent wage and claiming a spot in America’s middle class. If you can’t the odds are increasingly against you. It is shocking to read that high school graduates without a college degree compare more closely to high school drop-outs (in terms of many cultural factors) than to those with a college degree. A few short decades ago, the opposite was true. Peck quotes from a national study of the American family by the sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox: “The family lives of today’s moderately educated Americans,” which in the 1970s closely resembled those of college graduates, now “increasingly resemble those of high-school dropouts, too often burdened by financial stress, partner conflict, single parenting, and troubled children.”
The most important thing we can do for our nation is to ensure that all of our citizens gain the skills and knowledge that are increasingly being rewarded in our global society. Ensuring this is not a matter of figuring out the solution; we broadly know what the solution is. It is not about creating an entitlement society. It is not about vilifying the 1%. At its core it is about preserving and promoting economic mobility for all. The need is as great now as it has ever been to broaden the educational opportunities to which every citizen has access, and to reverse the economic trends that have persisted since Dr. King made his famous speech. Indeed, if Dr. King could survey the field as we see it today, I am sure he would feel compelled to take pen in hand and start drafting. I, for one, would be grateful to listen.