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

(3 of 4)

In the decades following the March on Washington, much of the work focused on integration. It was often about terrain: Who got to go to what schools or live in what neighborhoods? Who had access to the management track? There were busing, affirmative action, equal-opportunity programs and diversity training. The result of all those efforts can be summed up quite powerfully in six simple words: "We wanted equality. We got integration."

Those six words recently arrived in my inbox from Rondrea Danielle Mathis of Tampa. For the past three years I have been collecting six-word stories on race and cultural identity at the Race Card Project to help foster a dialogue on differences and to better understand the experience around race in America. More than 30,000 people have shared their stories, and collectively they provide potent lessons for us all. One of the things I have come to realize during this summer retrospective is that the equality King called for involves not physical terrain but the geography of the mind. What kind of baggage do we carry? What assumptions do we make? What kinds of boxes do we check off or put people in ... or even create for ourselves?

Try this exercise. Read the following descriptions and visualize the people from these scenarios in your mind: A banker. A chief of staff at a hospital. A law-school valedictorian. A family out on a Sunday afternoon hoping to purchase a new home. A man who spends his retirement fly-fishing. The woman who is juggling family, work and aging parents and still trying to make a weekly yoga class.

Now be honest. What did the people look like? Did they resemble members of your family or people in your community? Were the images based on what you see and hear in your life or in the media? Did that bank president have a South Asian name that included so many syllables that it seemed to dance across the tongue? Did that law-school valedictorian have a deep Southern accent, or did she give a shout-out to grandparents in the audience who have prospered in America but do not speak fluent English?

Most likely the answers are no. But by 2023, the majority of children under 18 in this country will be minorities. And yes, that will call for a new terminology--but also a new way of thinking. The socioeconomic indicators that once marked people for automatic privilege are shifting. The next generation of 18-year-olds isn't going to look or sound like the last. If America is to prosper, kids who listen to reggaeton, eat kimchi, celebrate their quinceaãeras, work weekends at the small-town Dairy Queen and wear oversize hoodies have to believe in the promise of King's dream. The geography of the mind requires that we challenge our assumptions and see past differences to place all kinds of people in a category marked "bound for success." While it is regrettable that King's "unfinished" list is still too long, the brilliance of his riff on the dream was that it challenged us to think differently.

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