In a speech delivered at Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network breakfast in Washington on Martin Luther King Day, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said that the U.S. economy “has never worked fairly for Black Americans — or, really, for any American of color."
Speaking on the holiday that honors what would've been Dr. Martin Luther King's 93rd birthday, Yellen referenced the financial metaphor the slain civil rights leader used when describing the founding fathers’ promises of equality in his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech.
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir," Dr. King said.
“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned,” Dr. King said in the speech, “They’ve been given a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds. But we refuse to believe the bank of justice is bankrupt!”
"It is compelling rhetoric, but I also think Dr. King knew it was a 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 touted the Biden administration's actions since taking office nearly one year ago, but said "there is still much more work Treasury needs to do to narrow the racial wealth divide."
"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. "It has been a year of action, especially at the Treasury Department. We’ve completed Treasury’s first equity review, looking across the Department and asking: Where are our operations not as inclusive as they should be?"
"We’ve brought on the most diverse leadership team in Treasury’s history and hired the Department’s first ever counselor on racial equity," she continued. "And then there’s Treasury’s pandemic response. We knew that the communities hurt most by COVID were often communities of color, and so as we began implementing relief bills like the American Rescue Plan, we did so with equity in mind."
Equity was built into the American Rescue Plan so that communities of color would get pandemic relief, and Treasury is injecting $9 billion into Community Development Financial Institutions and Minority Depository Institutions traditionally poorly served by the financial sector.
"Of course, no one program and no one administration can make good on the hopes and aspirations that Dr. King had for our country," Yellen concluded. "There is still much more work Treasury needs to do to narrow the racial wealth divide."
Major events for the holiday also included the annual Martin Luther King Jr. service at the slain civil rights leader’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, whose senior pastor, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, was hosting Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and other politicians.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.