President Barack Obama highlighted the importance of economic and social equality in his second inaugural address today, the day on which the country also commemorates civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King., Jr. In the United States today, a record number of people are living in poverty. [NCLEJ] Economic and social inequality in the United States remains remarkably high, particularly relative to countries of similar development and wealth; these trends continue to disproportionately affect black, Latino and women-led households. [Brookings Institute; NCLEJ; NPR] See Bertelsmann Stiftung, Social Justice in the OECD: How Do the Member States Compare? (2012); The International Forum for Social Development, Social Justice in an Open World: The Role of the United Nations (2006).
Several obstacles to economic equality for American women, including lack of mandated paid maternity leave and a persistent wage gap, were highlighted in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ recent report on progress towards the realization of economic, social and cultural rights in the Americas. IACHR, The Work, Education and Resources of Women: The road to equality in guaranteeing economic, social and cultural rights (2011). United Nations human rights experts on water and sanitation and indigenous peoples’ rights have also recently reported on unequal access to public services and opportunity in the United States. When the United States underwent the Universal Periodic Review process, many States made recommendations pertaining to economic and social inequality, particularly with regard to minority groups.
The conversation on the government’s role in ensuring equality of opportunity and fostering social and economic justice continues in the United States, as could be seen in the President’s speech and in public reflections on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. As we wrote on this site two years ago today:
Today in the United States, the life and work of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are commemorated. Dr. King was born on January 15, 1929 and in the years prior to his assassination in 1968, Dr. King was a leading figure in the non-violent struggle to gain respect for the civil rights of African Americans across the United States, as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a member of the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1964, Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, at the age of thirty-five. On April 4, 1968, he was assassinated while in Memphis, Tennessee to lead a workers’ protest. [Nobel Foundation; King Institute at Stanford University]
Best known for his role in mobilizing mass demonstrations and protests, Dr. King played an integral role in the 13 month-long Montgomery bus boycott which protested racial segregation on city buses in the American South following the arrest of Rosa Parks, inspired many with his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” , organized black voter registration drives, and led the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. [King Institute at Stanford University]
The civil rights community and its supporters endured threats, government surveillance, violence, police brutality, and imprisonment – and many lost their lives – but their efforts forced state and local governments to begin complying with court-ordered desegregation in public schools and transportation, and paved the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta [Georgia] and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham [Alabama]. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
Dr. Martin Luther King., Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 19, 1963.
Efforts to achieve social, racial and economic justice in the United States continue today, and face many challenges. Before the mid 20th century, changes in the country’s economy (most importantly, decreasing dependence on agriculture in favor of industry), changed where – and in what conditions – many Americans lived and worked. In neighborhoods throughout the country, racially-restrictive covenants required property owners to sell only to white buyers, until such covenants were declared unconstitutional in 1948. In recent decades, the consequences of under-funded public schools, discriminatory lending practices, disproportionate police contact, a reduced social safety net, de facto segregation in schools, and harsher criminal justice outcomes affecting African Americans can be seen as contributing to phenomena such as the “school to prison pipeline” and persistent wage inequality.
Organizations working towards social justice in the United States include the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and its affiliates, the NAACP, Southern Poverty Law Center, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law, MALDEF, the National Urban League, National Council of La Raza, and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice.