In the Spirit of Martin Luther King: Reflections on Income Inequality

Last night my wife and I were looking for something to stream on Netflix, and I remembered thatThe Butlerwas available on Red Box (which has a vending machine about a 90-second walk from our residence).

About 34 minutes into the film, Vice President Nixon (John Cusack) enters the White House kitchen, where the butler (Forest Whitaker) and two other staff members (Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz) are kneading dough (no pun intended). The opportunistic Nixon passes out some campaign buttons and turns the scene into a research session:

Nixon: Let me ask you something, in all candor, as members of the Negro community, what are your biggest concerns?

Now, come on now, boys. Don't be shy.

James Holloway (played by Kravitz): "Well, since you asked, sir."

Nixon: I did.

Holloway: The colored help gets paid almost 40% less than the white help.

Nixon: Is that right?

Holloway: Yes, sir. And it's very difficult for the colored staff to be promoted.

Nixon: I'll tell you what. When I'm President, I'm gonna look into getting you boys the raises and promotions you deserve.

When the film was over, I downloaded the Census Bureau's historical data forPer Capita Income. The annual data starts in 1967, a bit over seven years after the hypothetical conversation between Nixon and the staff. Based on the CB data, we can assume that the 1960 White House was probably a bit more equitable in salaries than society at large. The per capita income gap between blacks and whites at the inception of the CB data was 46%. Forty years later, in 2007, the gap reached its narrowest at 35%. The latest annual data, though 2012, puts the gap slightly wider at 36%.

Here is a more detailed snapshot of the data: real per capita annual income for blacks and whites in chained 2012 dollars using the Consumer Price Index for Urban Consumers - Research Series, which is the CB's preferred inflation index. For some historical context, I've highlighted recessions and the Presidencies during this timeframe.

The next chart gives us a clearer view of the relative growth of these two data series.

For a more detailed analysis of the recent trends, see this monthly breakdown by race and ethnicity of household incomes from June 2009 to June 2013, data courtesy ofSentier Research.

As we readily see, our progress toward income equality has been quite limited, and the little success we can measure has been excruciatingly slow in coming.

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