The Fiscal Cliff Fallout: This Is Not What Dr. King Would Have Wanted

By Barbara R. Arnwine | February 1, 2013

– As we reflect onMartin Luther King Day, many of us remember his famous and stirring “I Have ADream Speech.” This speech is memorialized as the centerpiece of the “March onWashington for Jobs and Freedom,” which spoke of the twin evils of racialdiscrimination and economic deprivation that prevailed because of the defaultedpromissory note that stipulated equality for all. In an earlier speech in Detroit ,Dr. King linked the “twin evils” stating that “I have a dream this afternoonthat one day right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or renta house anywhere their money will carry them and they will be able to get ajob.” {{more}}Then and now the civil rights movement is about much more than endingracial discrimination, a major tenet of the movement has been also advocatingfor economic justice and opportunities for all people. Until there isequal access to economic opportunities for all Americans, our nation cannotcall itself a post racial society. The modern form of racial discrimination isrealized through an economic proxy. We find evidence of this in the fiscalcliff compromise, which was hard fought and difficult to reach. The devastatingimplications for African Americans and other economically vulnerable racialminorities of the shredding of the social safety network cannot be ignored. Thefruition of the December 2012 compromise allowed racial minorities to avoid acompound of injustice and discrimination that could have manifested without adecision. According to theCongressional Budget Office’s August 2012 report, “An Update to the Budget andEconomic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2012 to 2022 Report”, the cuts could have sentthe entire country into another recession. As we have learned from the GreatRecession, racial minorities are disproportionately impacted by downturns inthe economy. In 2001, nearly 65 percent of White adults and just over 60percent of Black adults were employed. The Great Recession caused the share ofBlack working adults to slide down to 52 percent, nearly seven points behindWhites. Throughout therecession, the unemployment rate for African Americans continued to rise in thedouble digits, with the December 2012 unemployment rate at 14 percent forAfrican Americans, while it was only 6.9 percent for Whites. Even though racialminorities can count this fiscal cliff compromise as a win, the political showdownssurrounding the compromise have fostered a breeding ground of animosity thatmay preview continual struggles ahead. Debates in comingmonths concerning spending cuts and raising the nation’s limit on borrowing areraising legitimate concerns in minority communities. Those who opposed thecompromise and were against raising taxes on the wealthy, have vowed that inany future debates they would stalwartly seek to include significant cuts ingovernment benefit programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Supplemental SecurityIncome , which could potentially have a disparate impact on minorities andlow-income families. This debate illustrates the twin evils of racialdiscrimination and economic deprivation that Dr. King spoke of so eloquently. Many of Dr.King’s remarks are almost prescient of today’s economic issues. His remark that”God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous wealth whileothers live in abject deadening poverty” resonates soundly with the fiscalcliff compromise to tax wealthy Americans at a higher rate in order to supplantthe harrowing growth of the minority poverty rate, which had previously beennarrowed prior to the recession. In a similar fashion, his observation that”Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” speaks to howpoliticians should approach future economic debates. Decisions in anyupcoming fiscal debates should ensure that all Americans are treated fairly andshould not create an undue burden on those in our country who are already strugglingto survive economically. That type of injustice onlyimpedes the growth our nation in becoming a post-racial society. Dr. King’sspeeches push beyond issues of economic inequality, calling for parity in allfacets of life. However, it is hard to envision the dream of equalitymanifesting without an equal economic playing field. Barbara R. Arnwine is president andexecutive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. TheLawyers’ Committee is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, formed in 1963 atthe request of President John F. Kennedy to enlist the private bar’s leadershipand resources in combating racial discrimination and the resulting inequalityof opportunity – work that continues to be vital today. Tahirah Marston, a BusinessMajor at George Washington University and intern for the Lawyers’ Committee,contributed to this editorial. For more information on the Lawyers’ Committee,please visit