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.