Central to Martin Luther King Jr.’s pursuit of Black liberation was a call for the fundamental redistribution of wealth and economic resources. More than a half-century after his assassination, King’s radical demand is glaringly absent from the mainstream MLK Day discourse.
For some, the oversight may be borne out of ignorance or uncertainty, though as King said, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it.” But for others – namely those in positions of institutional power who, whether implicitly or explicitly, continue to uphold racist policies, and the corporations that benefit from the preservation of thereof – the omission is a conscious choice.
In an opinion piece for The Guardian, Michael Harriot defines a stark contrast between the real Dr. King, who “challenged systemic racism, supported reparations and advocated for a universal basic income,” and the “caricature of a man” honored each January, “whose likeness has been made palatable for white consumption.”
When he was alive, King was a walking, talking example of everything this country despises about the quest for Black liberation. He railed against police brutality. He reminded the country of its racist past. He scolded the powers that be for income inequality and systemic racism.
Indeed, so much of what King worked to dismantle remains in tact five decades later. Among the enduring inequities that Black Americans face is the racial disparity in homeownership and mortgage approval rates. The systemic barriers responsible for the gap have only grown in recent years.
Zillow’s recent analysis of new data from the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) determined that Black mortgage applicants are denied 84 percent more than their white counterparts – a 10 percent jump since 2019. Additionally, an investigation published last August by The Markup also found that lenders are more likely to deny home loans to people of color than to white applicants with similar financial profiles. Reporters Emmanuel Martinez and Lauren Kirchner held “17 different factors steady in a complex statistical analysis of more than two million conventional mortgage applications for home purchases… In every case, the prospective borrowers of color looked almost exactly the same on paper as the white applicants, except for their race.” The racial discrepancy exceeded 250 percent in certain metro areas.
Black homeownership nationwide sits at about 44 percent, far below the current white homeownership rate of around 75 percent. The gap is larger today “than it was when it was legal to refuse to sell someone a home because of the color of their skin,” according to the Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center.
These numbers paint a bleak picture of America’s enduring – and in some cases deepening – racial economic inequality. Sharing innocuous MLK quotes in what Harriot describes as “performative praise” and “social media virtue-signaling” merely allows people to check a box for “celebrating” a whitewashed version of the civil rights leader.
Overlooking the revolutionary implications of his lifelong commitment to Black liberation and economic justice does more to insult than to honor Dr. King. Until the U.S. acknowledges the full scope of his radical dream, there can be no hope of actually bringing it to fruition.