To fulfill King’s dream, focus on fundamentals

Three crippling trends in our country must be addressed to minimize the cycle of poverty and despair.

By Kendall Qualls

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, we are reminded that King achieved social change by pushing America to fulfill its obligations to Black Americans, securing rights promised to all citizens in the U.S. Constitution. Sadly, King’s life work and sacrifices removing significant barriers have yielded few benefits for too many Black Americans.

The Black political class has done quite well since the 1960s. We have seen Black Americans elected to from mayoral offices to the Oval Office and nearly every position in between, including, now, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. However, far too many Black Americans are stuck in generational poverty and despair.

If King were alive today, he would be appalled at three crippling trends in our country — two trends in the Black community and one gaining momentum in the broader culture.

In the Black community, the first problem that would shock King is the stark decline in academic motivation and performance. Locally, the academic performance gap for Black students in Minnesota is nearly the worst in the country.

The second disturbing trend has been an uncomfortable and ignored topic for decades and it has a corresponding association with the academic problem — the dramatic increase of fatherless homes.

The percentage of fatherless homes in the Black community has exploded in five decades, from 25% in the 1960s to 75% today. We should all be concerned because this problem is rapidly expanding beyond the Black community. Today, over 50% of births occur outside of marriage for all women under 30.

The U.S. has the largest percentage in the world of births outside of marriage. We’ve been silent too long on this issue.

The last disturbing trend is the march toward identity politics. Generations of Americans agreed with King’s dream that “content of character” is the right standard by which to judge an individual, rather than skin color. King would shudder in dismay at the weaponization of identity politics. Just because the weapon is pointed at a different ethnic group doesn’t make the concept acceptable.

Identity politics was wrong when King fought against it in the 1960s and it is wrong today.

It is tragically ironic that the pillars of the Black culture — faith, family and education — were stronger during King’s life than they are today. Sadly, these pillars have crumbled and desperately need repair.

Faith and family held Black Americans together during America’s history from the post-Civil War era through sanctioned segregation of the 1960s.

The pursuit of a better education was so important that slaves risked severe punishment just to learn to read.

Instead of sticking with the same policies and policymakers that have failed for more than 50 years, we should focus on the fundamentals to restore broken families. The goal should be to empower people to take charge of their own lives, the lives of their children and not to rely on government or politicians for redemption and prosperity.

Efforts should be centered on three goals: restoring two-parent families, improving academic performance and helping to prepare young adults to prosper in the private sector.

It is a national tragedy that nearly 80% of Black children grow up in fatherless homes. A plethora of studies reveal that children from two-parent Black families prosper during childhood and adult years in comparison to children from single-parent families, even when both cohorts of parents have the same level of education.

In addition, children from two-parent Black families have significantly less engagement with law enforcement, live longer and lead healthier lives. Community leaders, academic professionals and faith leaders should collaborate on a unified program to promote marriage throughout their communities.

A quality education is the gateway to prosperity. Government agencies should not hinder impoverished parents in their choice of schools when public schools fail students academically. Over 50% of Black students in Minneapolis Public Schools perform below state and national averages, while Black students from the same neighborhoods that attend Ascension, Cristo Rey and Hope Academy, private faith-based schools, perform above state and national averages. These schools have waiting lists from desperate parents wanting a better life for their children.

The private sector and free enterprise are the fastest route to a better quality of life. Getting a job and earning a living brings dignity, respect and value to a person’s life. Private-sector job creation is the cornerstone of prosperity for all Americans.

We should all be challenged to fulfill King’s vision to reactivate the American dream and prove that it still works for everyone regardless of race. I know the American dream still works because it has worked for me and millions of others who started life in poverty.

Originally published in the StarTribune.