Race in America, 50 Years after the Dream

In some ways, America has exceeded King's visions. In others, however, his to-do list remains far from finished

  • Share
  • Read Later

(2 of 4)

America twice elected a President who is black. That's one for the history books--but so too was the day that same President visited the White House briefing room to remind America that while the world rises up to meet him as leader, as a black man he might have a hard time hailing a cab outside the White House. Speaking of the not-guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, Obama said, "I think it is important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away." With that statement, the distance between the preacher and the President was much like an image in an automobile's side-view mirror: OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.

It can often seem that King's dream has almost completely upstaged his to-do list. The full name of the 1963 event was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and the organizers realized that if thousands of people were flocking to the nation's capital, then the demands ought not be fuzzy. Planners distributed organizing manuals that detailed the reasons for the grand effort. "What We Demand"--the manual stated. The answer was a 10-point plan that included "dignified jobs at decent wages," "desegregation of all school districts" and a ban on discrimination in "all housing supported by federal funds."

"Why We March"--the manual spelled that out too. "To redress old grievances and to help resolve an American crisis ... born of the twin evils of racism and economic deprivation."

That last bit got lost over the years. How does one assess the current state of King's dream without also examining the items on that wish list that have yet to be realized? There is little doubt that had he lived, King today would be concerned about prison rates, murder rates, wars and persistent racial inequality--the so-called opportunity gap. That specific list of demands for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom also suggests that King would be particularly upset about the growing wealth gap.

Consider the cruel irony in a now familiar image. King's name adorns major thoroughfares in many American cities, and most often the name of the civil rights icon is attached to streets that run through communities of color. But those streets are too often boulevards of broken dreams and limited opportunities. While the black and Latino middle class is growing, financial stability still remains beyond reach for a large sector of society. Since the mid-1970s, the unemployment rate for blacks has consistently been roughly double the unemployment rate for whites. Even the concept of wealth is relative when assessed in black and white terms. The median wealth of black families in which the head of household graduated from college is less than the median wealth for white families whose head of household dropped out of high school. Eighty-five percent of black and Latino households have a net worth that falls below the median wealth for white households. Closing the gap would require black and Latino households to save 100% of their incomes for three consecutive years. Talk about trying to touch the sun.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4