“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Lilla Watson, activist, academic and artist, says that this quote is a collective belief born from the activist groups she was a part of.
As we approach yet another year of celebrating the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, I’m reminded of the core belief Lilla Watson’s quote suggests. Our common humanity unites us in our struggles and in our achievements.
Is it more than common struggles and achievements that bound us? Author and activist James Baldwin once said: “We are all androgynous, not only because we are all born of a woman impregnated by the seed of a man, but because each of us helplessly and forever contains the other — male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white. We are a part of each other.” Is that an inconvenient truth?
Over the past few decades, the Kansas City region experienced steady growth in terms of jobs. Its economy also demonstrated resilience through the downturn, and although unemployment spiked, it never reached national averages and dropped quickly during the recovery.
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Despite the positive indicators, growing inequities began long before the economic downturn placed the region’s future at risk. The fact that unemployment is below average overall masks persistently higher levels of joblessness for the region’s black, Latino and Native American communities.
Income inequality is also on the rise in the region, and most workers have seen their wages decline or stagnate over the past several decades after you account for inflation. The bottom half of the region’s full-time workers, for example, have seen their wages fall 6 percent since 1979, while the wages of the top 10 percent of workers rose 13 percent.
As inequality has increased, the region’s middle class has shrunk and poverty and working poverty (defined as working full time for an income below 150 percent of the poverty level) have grown. More than one out of every four African-Americans and Latinos live below the poverty level — more than triple the rates of whites. Latinos are much more likely to be among the working poor compared to other groups. This means the region’s fastest-growing population suffers some of the worst economic conditions.
Education is believed to be a leveler, yet racial and gender gaps persist in the region’s labor market. At every education level, people of color have higher unemployment and lower wages than whites, and women have lower wages than their male counterparts. For example, among college graduates, white males earn $30 per hour on average, while hourly wages for white women, women of color and men of color are between $21 and $26.
The dream can be realized if we bridge the racial gap, grow good jobs, connect unemployment and low-wage workers to careers in high-growth industries, and help disconnected youths get back on track.
Damon Daniel is executive director of the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime.