Today marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I can recall the feeling of the adults around me at the time. A few believed that he had pushed too far too fast, most others believed that with his death, our plight as Negroes, as we were known then, was that of being permanently relegated to second-class citizens. Forty years later, the question of racial equality remains, at best, a mixed bag.
Edward W. Brooke, a witness to the last 40 years of history, believes that we have far to go.
The core conditions that the Kerner Commission identified as key contributors to civil unrest are as prevalent, if not as virulent, today as they were 40 years ago. The lack of affordable, safe housing and the absence of jobs or hope for the future have confined even more of our citizens to an eerily familiar world that not so long ago gave rise to cities in flames.
Until we root out and eradicate the conditions that cultivate generations in deprivation and despair, we are bound to harvest a bitter crop.
That blacks and whites live different realities is hardly news. What’s intriguing is the reason, as suggested by the second study. Yale University researcher Richard Eibach found that whites and blacks employ different measures in assessing racial progress. Whites judge it by looking at how far we have come (”How can you say there’s still racism when we have an Oprah Winfrey and a Barack Obama?”) Blacks judge it by how far we have yet to go (“How can you say there’s no racism when police keep stopping me for no reason?”)
I don’t see the glass as either half-empty or half-full. What I see is a glass that is not brimming over. The progress of the last 40 years has been, in many ways, astonishing and at the same time, quite sad. The upward mobility of blacks has allowed some to get to the mountaintop while leaving behind others. Black neighborhoods, self-sustaining and nurturing out of necessity, have given way to ghettos, making even black Americans fear other black Americans. This isn’t progress.
Daily, I experience events that make me realize how far we have to go: a funeral where I am one of only two blacks in the church, another event where there are only two or three whites in the room. This isn’t progress.
And then there is the presidential race. When I talk to black folk who are supporting Obama simply because he is black, running through my head is King’s desire to have his children judged on the content of their character, not the color of their skin. Yet far too many of those with whom I’ve spoken are doing just the opposite, telling me that they support him only because he’s black. This isn’t progress.
I hear the national media repeat ad naseum that Wright’s comments are “typical” of black churches yet no one with whom I’ve spoken has ever heard such language in their church. The notion goes unchallenged and becomes a part of the meme of black people in America, along with “the scary black male,” “the welfare queen,” and other such stereotypes. This isn’t progress.
Four days before his assassination, Dr. King gave a sermon that resonates with me to this day. Forty years ago, Dr. King advised us on Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution:
… one of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.
I fear that many are still sleeping.
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