The U.S. economy has "never worked fairly" for Black Americans or any person of color, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a Monday speech, joining a cadre of national leaders who used Martin Luther King Jr. Day to acknowledge racial inequalities in the country.
Yellen made the in remarks in a prepared speech that she recorded for delivery at the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network breakfast in Washington. Monday would have been the 93rd birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was only 39 when he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968 while supporting Black city sanitation workers who were striking.
She referenced part of King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech that he gave on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in which he said that America "has defaulted on this promissory note" that all Americans would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness "insofar as her citizens of color are related."
The civil rights leader called the promise a "bad check, a check which has come marked insufficient funds. But we refuse to believe the bank of justice is bankrupt."
"It is compelling rhetoric, but I think Dr. King knew it was more than a metaphor," Yellen said. "He knew that economic injustice was bound up in the larger injustice he fought against. From Reconstruction, to Jim Crow, to the present day, our economy has never worked fairly for Black Americans – or, really, for any American of color."
Yellen said the Treasury Department has "much more work" to do in order to narrow the racial wealth divide, and noted that no one program or administration can "make good on the hopes and aspirations that Dr. King had for our country."
But she argued that the Biden administration is helping to shrink the gap and improve equity through different actions it's taken, including passing the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan in March, diversifying leadership roles at the Treasury and injecting $9 billion into community development financial institutions and minority depository institutions.
"Since taking office last January, our administration has tried to change that; to ensure that neither the figurative bank of justice – nor any literal economic institution – fails to work for people of color," she said.