I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Such are there immortal words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., spoken 50 years ago this Wednesday.
Five decades on, it seems the great Dream has been the object of inception. The vision that was implanted in the common psyche is in continual need of extraction. We continue to peel back the layers, one by one, trying to approach the goal of freedom and unity, and turn it into reality.
King’s may have been a dream within a dream, glowing in the distance, held faraway by deep tiers of social ills and history and bureaucracy. We need not only the courage to see the Dream for ourselves, but we need also the special kick that might make the Dream reality, to pull it from the confines of REM into the air and light — and sometimes gloom — of waking hours.
In many ways the dream is now real — pieces unlocked, parts pulled out — but in many others the prophecy hasn’t yet come to pass.
Federally-sanctioned segregation is long gone. The sort of legal discrimination that barred blacks from “white water fountains” is no more. The signs over bathrooms have been taken down. Now, blacks and whites marry. Go to school together. Go to church together.
Only sometimes, because there is still prejudice. It is the self-sanctioned sort. The kind lingering in institutional structures and traditions. The kind instilled by old causes with lasting effects.
Blacks are less poor than they were, but are still poorer than whites. Thirty-eight percent of African Americans between 18 and 24 go to college, but dropout rates are high. They run for office, but are still underrepresented. Blacks have access to healthcare, but still have shorter life expectancy than other Americans.
We need look no further than the above realities for proof of the racial divide that just will not close. We don’t need to look beyond the national headlines for proof that the divide, seemingly necessitated by history and desired by cynics, is still at the forefront of a million minds. The killing of Trayvon Martin. The “boredom” killing of Delbert Belton and the “thrill” killing of Christopher Lane. Whether any of these incidents were race-related or not is, at this point, irrelevant. The court of public opinion has decided they are race-related.
So, there are still glass ceilings. There are still shackles. There are still oppressors, victims of oppression and passersby — as though we might get away with being pedestrians on the road to Martin Luther King’s Dream.
But there are no pedestrians. There are only people who oppose discrimination and people who maintain it — and people who do nothing, which is the same as the latter.
I don’t think the Dream threatens to “collapse,” but I do think Americans are in danger of either holing in the world of the Dream and mistaking it for reality, or giving up on the Dream altogether and calling it fantasy.
Nevertheless, I think we can take comfort in the words of the president.
And let me just leave you with a final thought that, as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn’t mean we’re in a post-racial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But when I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are — they’re better than we were — on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.
And so we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues. And those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature, as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions. But we should also have confidence that kids these days, I think, have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did; and that along this long, difficult journey, we’re becoming a more perfect union — not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.
Some of the statistics here are taken from The Economist’s cover story, “Waking Life,” and the speech excerpt is from Barack Obama’s controversial — and I think stirring — monologue after the George Zimmeran verdict was announced.