Saturday, August 24, 2013

What Impedes the Dream Today?

This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the transformative March on Washington and Martin Luther King's famed "I Have a Dream" speech. When King delivered that speech, segregation remained a legal and social reality--an overt expression of racial division that no one could deny, even if many still sought to justify it.

Today, legal segregation is gone. Today, we have a sitting president whose father was African. Today, I have a student in one of my classes who can assert with all sincerity that racial prejudice is "fading" from American society.

A lot has changed in fifty years, and although I don't share my student's optimistic assessment, I understand why he said it. The dividing lines of race--the sharp divides imposed and reinforced by "Whites Only" signs and Jim Crow laws and police enforcement--are no longer so stark. If you don't see something with the vividness that you used to, the term "faded" makes some sense.

But a faded image may be every bit as present as it ever was, even though its colors are less sharp.

While many things surely have changed for the better, King's dream remains in many ways an unrealized dream. The tragic death of Trayvon Martin--a death that surely would not have occurred had Trayvon been a young white man heading through his neighborhood to buy a snack--is a reminder that black Americans and white Americans still live in different social realities. The sharply divided assessments of George Zimmerman's acquittal remind us of persistently incommensurate perceptions of the world.

We still live in a society where churches remain the most segregated places in America. The reasons are numerous, but one of them is the fact that most black Americans still feel the pressing need to have a community where they can retreat in solidarity to support one another and lift one another up.

Malcolm X was critical of the civil rights movement in part because he grew up in the north, where there was no official policy of segregation. But racism was, for him, an inescapable reality even so. Malcolm X saw that overt racist policies, while a problem, would prove far easier to eradicate than more covert social prejudices: the unconscious condescension that leads a white school teacher to perceive a black student as less bright just because of skin color, the patronizing attitude that can lead a white grandmother to indulgently say how nice it is when "they" are nicely dressed and well behaved (as if she were discussing, say, pit bulls).

Malcolm X knew that there were more  insidious social structures than Jim Crow, social structures that were deeply entrenched but, because they didn't have the sharp delineation of an explicitly racist policy, were harder to identify and harder still to change. He saw the patterns of habituated despair in the black community, the internalization of covert racist messages about black inferiority, the ghettoization of black communities, the sharp economic disparities that were as much a legacy of slavery as Jim Crow.

And after his greatest successes, Martin Luther King saw these things, too. He saw that segregation laws were the tip of an iceberg of more unconscious but equally institutionalized racism, and that to get at what lay beneath, the movement had to address the problem of poverty and the various forces that perpetuated the disproportionate economic marginalization of black Americans. He was just beginning to wrestle with this monster problem, to try to marshal his creativity and eloquence in the face of it, when he was killed.

If there are forces that impede the realization of King's dream today, I think they are the ones that Malcolm X so clearly saw, the ones that King turned to in the last years of his life--turned to with his characteristic moral purpose but with far less clarity on how to proceed.

The problem of poverty is like every other problem of social marginalization: In addition to those who are harmed by it, there are beneficiaries. And the beneficiaries have power. And the beneficiaries can and do use their power to protect their privileges. But much of the time they don't realize that this is what they are doing. Caught up in their own narratives and ideologies, they don't see that what they are pursuing for themselves is not a basic human right that can be made equally available to all, but a privilege that some can enjoy only because others are pushed to the margins.

I say "they." I should say "we."

Jim Crow was a matter of law, and its cause was clear: Government bodies had made segregation laws, and government bodies could repeal them. The causes of economic underprivilege and social exclusion are much harder to pin down, much harder to see. The social patterns and practices that comprise covert racism, rather than being justified, are more often denied. And this denial is so easy because, so much of the time, these patterns and practices are unconscious. We just don't see that what we are doing feeds the continued marginalization of a group.

So if there are forces that impede King's dream today, it may be that the most important step is to become aware of them. To expose them for what they are. So, in honor of this anniversary of the March on Washington, I invite everyone to critically introspect and help identify specific patterns or practices that continue to raise impediments to the dream.


  1. Hello Eric,

    when I look at the situation in my native Country, France, I believe it is time to not only apply the radical ideals of MLK to racism from white people, but also to racism against white folks, and actually to EVERY kind of discrimination and rejection.
    This would also include the widespread belief it is fully okay to despise people having certain types of psychological problems such as autism.

    In general, this is a step Western liberals seem rather unwilling to take, unfortunately.

    Greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  2. The March was the 28th of August, not the 24th.

    1. Thanks, Stephen. I was led astray by an American Friends Service Committee post, and like a lemming I followed without fact-checking. I've corrected the error...through vagueness.

    2. You were probably also mislead by the timing of the anniversary march, which was last Saturday, and not today, the actual anniversary.

      And I think that vagueness is quite underrated as a tool for accuracy, myself.