Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of racial equality and harmony has not been fulfilled, according to African Americans and whites alike in a new Washington Post poll.

About a third of all Americans, 34 percent, say the “dream” cited in King’s famous Lincoln Memorial speech has been realized, down from a peak of 51 percent in December 2009. The decline has been most sharp among African Americans from 65 percent in January 2009 on the eve of President Obama’s inauguration, to 36 percent now.

People who say King’s dream is unfulfilled have also become less optimistic. Just over half think the country can eventually reach his dream, down from two-thirds before Obama’s inauguration. For the first time in polls back to April 2008, fewer than half of African Americans have that belief.

Economic inequality and a feeling of a lack of financial progress may be contributing to the sense that King’s dream is unfulfilled. The sputtering economy has taken a toll on all Americans but has exacerbated an already wide racial “wealth gap,” with non-whites falling further behind whites in total household wealth.

A separate report from the Pew Research Center in late July analyzing government data revealed a 53 percent decline in total wealth for black families from 2005 to 2009. Over that same period, wealth in white households declined by a more modest 16 percent.

The differences in overall dollar amounts are staggering. The average white household has wealth (assets minus debts) totaling $113,149 compared with total wealth of just $5,677 in the typical African American household. Those very large gaps are not new. Four years before, approaching the peak of the housing boom, the typical white household was worth $134,922 and the typical black household $12,124.

Total wealth in Hispanic households has suffered even more than for white or blacks, down 66 percent from 2005 to 2009. The Pew report identifies the disproportionate number of Hispanics living in states that suffered the brunt of the housing market collapse (California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona) taking an outsized toll on Hispanic family wealth.  

King’s speech pushed beyond matters of economic equality, but with such stark and growing gaps in total wealth the dream of equality may be harder to embrace for all.

A monument of Dr. King was unveiled on the National Mall in Washington on Monday and will be officially dedicated on Sunday, the 48th anniversary of the speech.

Read the full poll results.

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