When you're fast asleep.
— Mack David, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston,
for the Walt Disney film “Cinderella”
EVEN BEFORE the observances of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington informally started — days and weeks ago — the talking points were already out. As we might have expected, the view comparing America in 1963 and America today has yielded a keep-on-pushin’ narrative of black progress and empowerment in the half-century since Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. took the podium at the Lincoln Memorial to deliver the “I Have a Dream” speech, one of the handful of signal aspirational orations in American history.
Though the speech is rightly acclaimed and has more than held its reputation as a defining national statement, its detractors, or those more neutral or indifferent to its galvanizing emotionalism, have criticized the positioning of King’s aspirations in the context of a dream. For these tin-eared literalists, a dream is by definition illusory — something you wake up from, and, ergo, not to be taken seriously in the hard, fast, waking world.
They’re to be forgiven if King’s rhetorical choices don’t work for them. Such critics of the speech get too wrapped up in the means of delivery rather than focusing on the gift received. Bless their hearts, they don’t understand why “I have an objective today!” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
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In that, much of the Dream — the objective — has been achieved. The Washington Post, using information from the U.S. Census Bureau, recently offered a compelling snapshot of the progress of black Americans.
Things have changed for the better. The homeownership rate for black Americans stood at 41.6 percent in 1970, the first year those numbers were collected. It was at 43.4 percent in 2011; that figure was recorded after the recession of 2008, so black home ownership was almost certainly higher before the recession hit. Likewise, home ownership between 1963 and 1970 (most of those years before the Fair Housing Act of 1968) was just as certainly lower than 41.6 percent.
Black public officeholders are less uncommon than they were before. There were 1,469 black elected officials nationwide in 1970, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which uses a number that was, given the politics of the time, certainly lower in 1963. In 2011 that number had swelled to about 10,500.
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IN 1964, 25.7 percent of blacks age 25 and over had completed at least four years of high school; that percentage stood at 85 percent in 2012. In that same time, the number of black people with high school diplomas mushroomed almost tenfold, from 2.4 million to 20.3 million.
Between 1964 and 2012 the percentage of black Americans 25 and over who completed at least four years of college exploded from 3.9 percent to 21.2 percent, with the number of black Americans with bachelor’s degrees similarly expanding from 365,000 to more than 5 million.
The rate of African Americans voting in presidential elections has risen from 58.5 percent in 1964 to 62 percent in 2012.
In 1963, a black quarterback in the National Football League was as rare as the 31st day of June. By that year, there’d only been three in the history of the league, which began in 1920. Fast forward to today, when, happily, you can’t swing a live wide receiver without encountering a black quarterback — and a starter at that.
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That opens onto a more central, more important question in the context of our contemporary understanding of Dr. King’s “dream.” More than ever, we need to ask ourselves, are we viewing the “Dream” as an event or as a furtherance of a process?
It’s not a trick question. People speaking about Dr. King’s speech and comparing the achievements of then and now often ask, “are we there yet?” The question itself is problematic. “There” implies an end point, a terminus, a finality, a finish line. As any student of American democracy understands, there is no one absolute destination for African Americans, Latinos, women and LGBT Americans.
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THERE ARE commonalities, of course, within different approaches, different ways of gaining the same general opportunities for self-actualization of one’s goals and identity. Certain things — the chance to vote and be recognized, to marry whom you choose, to live where you want (or at least where you can afford) — deserve to be uniform throughout society.
But at the end of the day, there’s more to the “American dream” than achieving the permissions of the Constitution. Your American dream ain’t like mine ain’t like hers ain’t like anybody else’s. And the obstacles to reaching that goal won’t be the same for everyone, either.
This isn’t like a road trip you took with your family when you were a kid, going from one fixed point to another, asking mommy or daddy, “are we there yet?” As sure as injustice in American life has had its gradual undoing in one area, there’s always more work undoing it elsewhere in the American experience — or to hold on to the gains we’ve achieved. Thanks to our shifting demographics, and definitely our shifting politics, there’s no set destination in Americans’ pursuit of equality. One finish line leads to another starting gate.
Bernice King, MLK’s daughter, said as much today. Recalling lessons from her mother, Bernice King recalled how Coretta Scott King “reminded us that struggle is a never-ending process, freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.”
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The challenge for the United States as a democracy is in owning up to the imbalance of opportunities to even find, or maintain, a place at the starting gate. We see that today in the concerted efforts of several state legislatures to roll back citizen access to the polls; in the equally concerted efforts of those legislatures to roll back the reproductive rights of women; in conservatives’ attempts to beat back the drive for immigration reform.
These are some of the ways in which the Dream — the objective — is far from reality, farther, regrettably, than it was in 1963.
Today African Americans are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated for drug crimes than white Americans. African American household worth today is just 7 percent of that of white households, according to a Pew Research analysis.
Today, like in the early 60's, African American unemployment remains cripplingly high. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, black unemployment in 1962 was just under 11 percent. Today, two generations later, it’s at 12.8 percent.
The poverty gap has narrowed between blacks and whites, but today more than 27 percent of black Americans live in poverty, according to the Census Bureau. For black children it’s even worse (38.8 percent).
African American infant mortality is the highest in the nation, with about 12.4 percent of every 1,000 live births, more than twice that of whites, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control. The Joint Center for Political Studies found that “[e]ven after the successes of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, the ugly legacy of racial discrimination and injustice in this country persists in the form of the disparities between Black and white infant death rates as well as other health, education, employment and wealth disparities.”
The San Francisco Chronicle reported in January that “California’s improved African American death rate is roughly the same as that in Sri Lanka, Botswana and a host of other developing nations.”
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SOMETIMES, a dream is a wish your heart makes along with your head, while you’re wide awake. Martin Luther King understood this. Many in the country whose grasp of King’s role in the civil rights movement begins and ends with the “Dream” speech overlook the incremental, practical, grassroots dimension of his leadership — they don’t see how King helped pioneer the purely operational side of the movement, the one that made it go with more than speeches, made it grow with the sleeves-rolled-up action of community organizing. “Community” as a national idea.
That part of the Dream is very much alive and well, in ways King would approve of. He’d very much approve of the way young African Americans have nimbly navigated the very definition of what “grassroots” means today, as an online experience, with black people on the cutting edge of modern communications. Organizations like Color of Change have successfully launched grassroots Net-based campaigns that helped take down dangerous media bloviators, and advance populist causes King would have championed.
You have to believe he’d look both favorably and unfavorably at the proliferation of African Americans in the mainstream media, in numbers and positions of authority that couldn’t be more unlike 1963. He’d probably give a side-eye to the various magazines, Web sites and videos promoting the more confrontational, braggadocious, saggy-pants, booty-call aspects of the personae of hiphop and rap.
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But he probably couldn’t help but be heartened by one emerging fact: At the major networks, many influential magazines and news sites, and at many local TV stations around the country, people of color are presenting information from their perspectives, announcing the critical mass that minority voices are finally achieving in the national conversation.
And he’d surely be pleased by the Dream Defenders, a student-led group of activists that recently doubled down on old-school activism, using an old-fashioned sit-in at the statehouse in Tallahassee, Florida, to call for a special legislative session to repeal the Sunshine State’s dangerously permissive “stand your ground” gun laws, in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin at the hands of a sorry cypher with delusions of law-enforcement grandeur.
“We feel we’ve done all we could,” Erika Maye, a Dream Defenders spokeswoman, told CNN on Aug. 15, after the group’s 31-day sit-in. “We asked for the special session. We’re not getting it and now we’re going to the individual districts to lobby lawmakers and to register voters. We’re going to take it to the streets.”
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YOU'LL HAVE seen and heard and read it all day today as a summation of the last 50 years for African Americans: We’ve made strides but there’s a long way to go – a plus ça change statement that, while true, isn’t so much insightful as it is obvious. The trouble is that this perfectly apparent truth has been heard often, so often that it masquerades as some kind of wisdom, instead of a fact of American life that’s no less true and apparent today than it was that burning afternoon exactly 50 years ago.
The “I Have a Dream” speech is no rhetorical museum piece, no relic in amber. Its currency, its pertinence, its velocity into our time is undiminished and inescapable every time you hear it. More than anyone before the 44th president of the United States, Martin Luther King has become the avatar of African American potential, the symbol of what’s possible when a dream doesn’t confront reality so much as dovetail with reality, the reality of aspiration galvanized into action, in the statehouses, the studios and the streets.
As the United States grows in its racial and ethnic diversity, the challenge – King’s challenge – to this country is to accept that diversity not as some monstrous aberration from the national norm, but as the latest manifestation of America, a nation in the painful but necessary process of validating itself, living out the true meaning of its creed, judging people not by the color of their skin, the assertion of their ethnicity, the particulars of their sexual preference or the choice of their religion, but by the content of their character.
Image credits: Also published at Medium.com.