Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the historic March on Washington and MLK’s “I have a dream” speech. I’ve been following the coverage leading up to this landmark anniversary. There seems to be a consensus that when it comes to the “promise land” black Americans have made tremendous progress since 1963 and yet there is still a ways to go. How far we have to go depends on who you ask. Newsweek columnist Joshua DuBois wrote this week that “we” (black America) don’t have very far to go to be equal with non-Hispanic whites in categories like: high school drop out percentage (around 14% for blacks, around 12% for whites), life expectancy (72 for blacks, 77 for whites), he points out that while the incarceration rate of blacks today is worse than that of black Americans 50 years ago, Attorney General Eric Holder has targeted this issue and is working to lay out real solutions. DuBois writes achieving civil rights equality is more achievable today than ever before and all we have to do is take a few steps forward to realize it.
While DuBois’s picture in Newsweek is optimistic, there is another article that caught my attention and it paints a more sobering viewpoint of progress. A strong article in this week’s The Economist “Waking Life” really put in perspective the goals of King’s speech and, in Economist fashion, does the research to put statistical data behind their views. In short, the Economist points out the King’s speech laid out four major grievances: discrimination by private businesses and local government; barriers that kept black Americans from voting; unfair treatment by police; and what might broadly be called social mobility and economic opportunity. The Civil Rights Act 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 both went a long way to eliminate significant hurdles in the first two grievances laid out by King. While there are still issues with voting participation and discrimination by government bodies based on race, compared to 50 years ago I think it is safe to say the goals of Dr. King are being fulfilled.
Black Americans have made great strides in 50 years in reducing poverty and increasing college graduation rates. But the real problem is that we are not comparing ourselves to blacks 50 years ago, we are comparing ourselves to whites and other ethnic groups and there’s the rub. Like it or not black Americans lag behind whites in life expectancy and median income; we exceed whites in dropout rate and poverty rates. The Economist points out that the gap in median individual income between blacks and non-Hispanic whites rose a third, to almost $9,000 a year between 2000 and 2011. Black Americas were hit harder by the foreclosure crises, are more likely to attend a substandard school, and less likely to graduate from college, than white Americans. Black Americans are more likely to hold jobs with no benefits or retirement plan and have less money to save.
All of this without mentioning the criminal justice system; a place where, believe or not, black Americans – specifically young black males – are much more likely to be incarcerated today than 50 years ago. In 2011, 478 of every 100,000 white men and 51 of every 100,00 white women were imprisoned. For black men the rate was 3,023 per 100,000 and for black women 129 for every 100,000. Black Americans are more likely than whites to be arrested for the same crime. It’s truly a sobering look.
While it’s really easy to take a look at these facts and feel a bit discourage – or take it a step further and blame other people or entities; “The Man” or “The System.” We, as black Americans, also have to look within ourselves and our own communities – though there are less of them with growing gentrification (which may or may not be bad thing depending on who you ask). I have no doubt that the roots of many of these problems lie in the legacy of slavery and segregation. But we live in 2013 and we have to move now to fight our new battles in black America.
Marriage is declining and out-of-wedlock births are increasing throughout the country and black Americas are leading the way in both categories. In 2011, 72% of black babies are born to unwed mothers, and just 29% of black adults were married, compared with 60% in 1960. That is a problem in our community. Black on black crime is a real problem that needs to be addressed stronger; and I’m not talking about just in Chicago; it’s a problem throughout the country.
Dr. King is a true hero of mine for so many reasons: his faith, his courage, his logic, his fear, his leadership, so many reasons. I think it’s fair to say if he were alive today, he would be proud that a black man was elected President of the United States — twice. But I think he would also be concerned about the future of America. There is a sense that black America is losing sight of the dream and may even be losing the resolve to fight for it. I hope that is not true. I can’t speak – even better – I will not speak for others. I will only speak for myself when I say one of the good things about living in Richmond is that Richmond makes it very hard to forget the past, Monument Avenue makes it very hard for me to forget the past. Even today, the Virginia Flaggers make it very hard for me to forget the past. And while I struggle with some of the logic, I am thankful for the reminder that some people want to take me back. I don’t want to forget the struggles of the past. I don’t want to be tricked into the matrix of thinking there is nothing more to fight for. There is still discrimination, division, insensitivity and intolerance. I don’t want to forget the struggles that my grandmother went through. I don’t want to forget the fight that Dr. King waged. I don’t want to go backwards. So I do agree, 50 years later, we have come a long way yet there is still a ways to go and great work to be done.