MLK’s Mountaintop Never So Far Away


This Martin Luther King Day finds our nation and our state are further away from that mountain top the prophetic preacher referenced on the eve of his murder in Memphis in 1968 than at any point since we established the holiday.

It’s more like we are walking in a valley of shadows along an abyss.

According to a 50-state ranking of America’s state capitals by WalletHub out today, Trenton ranks 50th, dead last, in terms of the quality of life and the well-being of the families that live there.

Our capital city is 45 percent Hispanic and over 42 percent Black, according to the U.S. Census. More than one in three of the children enrolled in school there live below the poverty line. For children under six years old it’s 44.6 percent.

In 2018, 28 percent of the households in Trenton lived below the poverty line, but another 33 percent were, what the United Ways describes as ALICE [Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed] households, living week to week. That means that almost two-thirds of our state capital’s families struggle to make ends meet.

“In order to determine which state capitals made the best homes, WalletHub compared all 50 across 49 key indicators of affordability, economic well-being, quality of education and health, and quality of life,” according to the website.  “Our data set ranges from the cost of living to K–12 school-system quality to the percentage of residents who are fully vaccinated.”

Sadly, the socio-economic inequality that defines Trenton is manifest throughout the rest of our state. According to a 2021 report from the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, a non-profit advocacy group, while the U.S, has a racial wealth gap “problem”, New Jersey has a racial wealth gap “disaster.”

Is it any wonder that for so much of the pandemic, that’s contours were defined by existing race based health and income disparities, New Jersey had the highest COVID mortality rate of any place on earth?

Consider that nationally the U.S. median household wealth for white families is $171,000, compared to $20,000 for Hispanic families and $17,600 Black households. New Jersey’s white families have a $352,000 median household wealth contrasted with $7,300 for Hispanic families and $6,300 Black households.

Nationally, at the start of the pandemic, our government tried to provide financial support to America’s working families so they could avoid exposing themselves and their families to a killer virus.

Almost two years in, we now have the CDC shrinking the quarantine period for recovery without a negative test and we are ending protections from eviction and foreclosure.

After two years of failing to contain the virus that disproportionately impacts poor communities of color, we let scarcity consistently define our response. First it was a lack of masks, followed by a paucity of diagnostic tests, then our government capped it all off by the CDC’s decision to do the bidding of employers.

A hobbled Democratic Party President dropped a long overdue investment in the American people in the midst of a mass death event to try and rescue an essential voting rights package that’s headed for defeat because he can’t get two Senators from his own party on board.

Incredibly, the obstructionism of Democratic Senators Joe Manchin (WV) and Krysten Sinema (Az) in one stroke ensured Americans families would not get the support they need and that Republicans insurrectionists can continue rolling back voting rights, setting the stage for the restoration of Trump’s white minority rule.

In the meantime, our Stuck Nation has let the expansion of the child tax credit, approved with the American Rescue Plan, expire despite the fact it reduced our shameful childhood poverty by 41 percent, according to the  Economist.

Before the brief respite offered to the well over 10 million American children and their families living in poverty, the U.S. lagged scandalously behind other 38 OCED [Organizations for Economic C-operation and Development] nations. These nations, which include democracies like Britain, Canada, Germany, Japan and France spent an average of 2.1 percent of their Gross Domestic Product on their safety net for children and families as compared to our miserly .06 percent of our GDP.

At the same time, the Congress passed a $786 billion Pentagon budget, $24 billion dollars more than the Biden White House asked that cost twice what his Build Back Better proposal cost, according to Politifact.

This Martin Luther King Jr. Day comes as corporate news pundits are warning Democrats to embrace so called moderates and steer the party away from the views embraced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders.

This so-called moderate world view is underpinned by the belief that, over the arc of this nation’s history, we have been striving for and realizing a “more perfect union” through disciplined incrementalism and market capitalism.

Some pundits extol this as the great virtue of American moderation. Yet, the pandemic and ongoing insurrection suggest another narrative arc that could easily end in a dystopian nightmare.

Martin Luther King described such moderation as a “fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.”

From a Birmingham jail cell, he wrote he was “gravely disappointed with the white moderate” that he saw as “the Negro’s great stumbling block,” as much or more so than ardent segregationists or even the KKK. The white moderate, he observed, lived “by a mythical concept of time” and constantly advised “the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

If you want to see what generations of moderation gets you, just visit Trenton.

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