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Race relations and MLK's dream: Welcome to the generation gap

Eric Gay / AP

Thousands of people take part in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day march in San Antonio, Jan. 17, 2011.

You know that adage about how the young and old can never seem to see eye-to-eye?

That could well apply to the state of race relations in America, says a report released Friday by a national advocacy group working to rein in economic inequality.

In its ninth annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day report, titled “State of the Dream 2012: The Emerging Majority,” the Boston-based group United for a Fair Economy says that racial disparities are increasingly becoming influenced by age.

“Increasingly, elderly Americans do not identify with young Americans who are far more racially and ethnically diverse, leading to reductions in future-oriented public investments,” the report says.

According to the report, almost half of today’s U.S. residents under 18 are members of minority groups, while 80 percent of retirees are white. By 2030, the majority of U.S. residents under 18 will be youth of color. And by 2042, blacks, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders and other non-whites will collectively compose the majority of the U.S. population.

“If current trends continue, the racial wealth gap will continue to be massive, as it is now, and as the non-white share of the population grows it will become unbearable for the economy as a whole,” Tim Sullivan, one of the authors of the report, told msnbc.com.

The report says:

It is alarming that in states where the racial generation gap is widest, such as California where public investments in education, social programs, and transportation made in the 1950s helped to catapult the state into one of the richest in the country, public investments have dwindled, as the elderly do not see themselves reflected in youth of color.”

The report examines the racial economic divide in America since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and uses the trends of the last 30 years to project 30 years forward to 2042. The conclusion:  The past 30 years of public policy has done little to address racial economic disparities.

“The racial economic divide is a national embarrassment. Eliminating it should be a moral imperative, and as the non-white share of the population grows, it will become an increasingly urgent economic necessity,” United for a Fair Economy said.

Read the full report here

Elusive dream?
Forty-four years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and 83 years after his birth, civil-rights advocates agree that the income gap between white and non-whites remains a formidable problem.

Roy Innis, longtime civil rights activist and national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, said America has made great strides toward achieving the social and political components of King’s dream of a colorblind society, with passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the election of Barack Obama as its first black president in 2008. But he says the nation still has a way to go toward eliminating racial economic inequality.

“With social and political components well in hand, it is in the hands of minorities to complete the economic component,” Innis told msnbc.com.

Lecia Brooks, director of outreach for the Southern Poverty Law Center, agrees the country has made enormous progress since King was killed and says people of color hold elective and appointment positions "in far greater numbers than King could have imagined." She called the election of Obama "the single most significant accomplishment America has made toward the Dream."

Yet, "systemic progress continues to elude us," Brooks said.

"In 1967, when King launched the Poor People's Campaign, he said poverty was the second phase of the civil rights movement. Then, about 13 percent of the general population was living in poverty; today that number is over 15 percent with miuch higher poverty raytes for blacks and Latinos," Brooks said in an email to msnbc.com. "No, I don't think we're on the right course to correct race-based economic inequities."

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