King's Dream of Economic Parity Eludes Black Women

A recent study by the National Council of Negro Women and the Fannie Mae Foundation finds black women are much further along the road to economic power. But obstacles remain.

Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich

(WOMENSENEWS)-The blurred, fading images of nostalgia and of conveniently comfortable recall have so smoothed the sharp edges of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy that conventional memory is too often only of his more conciliatory phrases, not his hard, confrontational strategy of aggressive action.

As Black History Month begins Friday, many of us regret that he appears piously bland, that his popular portrait has been sanitized, and that his bold assault on biased economic barriers has been muted. Yet, in his last sermon, which many call his most apocalyptic, his economic strategy for the Memphis, Tenn., sanitation workers became a revolutionary head of steam. Dr. King already had moved from an agenda of non-violent civil disobedience to a proactive aggression which marched his demands for economic parity for African Americans directly into the corridors of the “. . . massive industries in our country:”

“Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdraw,” he exhorted. “We are richer than most nations of the world. We have an annual income of more than $30 billion a year, which is more than the national budget of Canada . . . Go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca Cola . . . Sealtest milk . . . Wonder Bread and Hart's Bread.”

He called for Blacks to invest in their own banks, savings and loans and insurance companies-a “bank-in” rather than a sit-in: “We can begin the process of building a greater economic base,” he said.

These words, delivered by Dr. King at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968-the eve of his assassination in that city-already presaged the evolution of a civil rights and equality agenda, from a focus only on the color of one's skin to a demand for parity through the color and power of one's money. Today, women in general, and black women in particular, live the legacy of this strategy in their pursuit of equity and security for themselves and for their families.

Survey Illustrates Black Women's Growing Economic Participation

Dr. Dorothy Irene Height, president emerita of the National Council of Negro Women, was a colleague of Dr. King's, marched right beside him during all of the civil rights protests, and today, continues to seek fulfillment of Dr. King's dream and the strategy for economic parity.

Dr. Dorothy Irene Height

In a survey recently sponsored by Dr. Height's organization, in collaboration with the Fannie Mae Foundation and conducted by the nationally respected Peter D. Hart Research Associates, data graphically depict black women's growing participation in today's financial and money-management arenas.

Through a sample of 605 African-American women, 302 non-African-American women, and 151 African-American men, the study documents significant improvement in women's economic and financial status during the last quarter-century. For example, in, more than six years after Dr. King stoked the economic parity engine in Memphis, only 30 percent of all women had checking accounts or a credit card in their own names. This deficit did not permit them to be a serious or credible threat in any economic strategy. Today, the joint study indicates that 25 years later, in 1999, 88 percent of all women had opened a checking account, and 76 percent held a credit card. A 2001 follow-up study confirms that little has changed and most of the women polled expect continued progress.

Nonetheless, data also show that, like progress in too many other arenas of equity and justice, black women still lag significantly behind black men and non-black women. “While women have had to face sexism and gender discrimination in the financial marketplace, as well as the gender gap that once existed in financial knowledge and self-determination, African-American women have had the added barriers associated with racial discrimination,” the NCNW-Fannie Mae study concludes.

Black Women Find Mortgage Providers Use Racial Profiling

While many substantial, well-established African-American women do access state-of-the-art financial systems, including stock, bond and retirement investments and sophisticated debt management, we still experience blatant discrimination, regularly camouflaged as so-called due-diligence measures, especially in the mortgage-loan industry. The study points out that 50 percent of black women reported that mortgage companies deserved a grade of C or less for equal treatment of black customers.

Anecdotal information from my own and other black women's personal experiences reflect this finding. Recently, in my efforts to reinforce my financial portfolio through a real-estate purchase in Florida, extraordinary demands were made to challenge my income, the validity of my other assets and, in fact, my position of authority in my job. The mortgage processor and underwriter demanded the last two years of bank statements in addition to the standard two most recent months which I had provided; proof, directly from the Internal Revenue Service, that my reported income as supported by documentation for two years of income-tax returns was not contrived or fraudulently reported; the submission of payroll stubs, “signed by someone other than yourself,” in spite of my being the chief operating officer and authorized signatory for my employing organization.

After meeting the former two demands, my refusal to produce the latter resulted in an assertion that I had income irregularities and thus, I believe, generated a racially and gender-based denial of a mortgage commitment. This pattern of exaggerated review, otherwise referred to as racial profiling, has been repeated often in my experience and those reported to me by other black women.

The 21st-century extension of Dr. King's civil rights and economic parity strategy must continue to target such racist and sexist behavior, not only because it is discriminatory, but also because it undermines the economic power of the black community. The NCNW-Fannie Mae study shows that 68 percent of African-American women, as compared with only 55 percent of women generally, are the sole decision makers for their family's household budget and financial planning. However, 39 percent of black women believe that they, in fact, are denied opportunities to get ahead, as compared with 28 percent of women generally. Moreover, 10 percent more non-black women than black women (64 percent to 54 percent) believe that “everyone has opportunities to get ahead and achieve the American dream.” Black women do not perceive that there is a level playing field, and the data from the NCNW-Fannie Mae study supports their fears.

It is convenient for those who have grown impatient with African-American women's demand for economic justice and equal access to point to the still-isolated instances of top economic power-“the new black power”-held by a highly visible, but limited number of blacks. Almost all of these success icons are men, who head Fortune 100 companies. Kenneth Chenault, chief executive officer of American Express; Richard Parsons, co-chief executive officer of AOL Time Warner; and Stanley O'Neal, president and chief executive officer of Merrill Lynch are the three economic stars who come immediately to mind. Oprah Winfrey is the only black woman in this galaxy and she heads her own empire.

These remarkable leaders constitute less than 3 percent of the economic group in which they have excelled. On the other hand, the NCNW-Fannie Mae Foundation study shows that 41 percent of African-American women earn less than $30,000 annually, compared with 33 percent of all women. The contrast is not pretty, at either end of the scale. Dr. Kings' identification of economic strength as a dominant element in the equity and justice equation was not a search for normative, idealistic goals. He said it best himself, that last night of his life in Memphis:

“It's all right to talk about ‘long white robes over yonder,' in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It's all right to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,' but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day . . .”

There is much of Dr. King's familiar “dream” which remains to be fulfilled.

Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, Ph. D., is the executive director and chief operating officer of the national Black Leadership Forum Inc., headquartered in Washington. The forum is a 25-year-old confederation of civil rights and service organizations.

Other Women's eNews commentaries by Scruggs-Leftwich:

Sep 19, 2001 Confronting Racism Would Enhance U.S. Security
Jul 04, 2001 Toward an Independence Day for All to Celebrate
Feb 28, 2001 Black Women Are Touching the Sky
Jan 15, 2001 Dr. Martin Luther King: ‘Give Us the Ballot'
Nov 15, 2000 Significance of Black Women's Vote Ignored
Sep 27, 2000 Black, Latina Women Locked in Jailhouse, Poorhouse
Aug 24, 2000 Candidates: Don't Underestimate Black Women