40 Years later, the dream is not yet fulfilled by Darron Smith publish in Southern Christian Leadership Conference Magazine
Since integration, some African Americans have been brought in closer contact with white America, and middle class African Americans, to be sure, have truly benefited from such relations. However, working class blacks continue to suffer from low wages and unemployment in a nation determined to redirect tax dollars toward increased military spending, war, and conflict abroad. Millions of dollars are being spent by the Bush administration to fight wars and terrorism that seem destined for failure while millions of Americans go without decent health care, food and housing. While addressing thousands at the 40th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington, held August 23rd 2003 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King, III, correctly noted that millions of Americans have no health insurance and many millions more have health insurance that doesn t cover serious illnesses. Let me make it plain as I can: we are here to call on congress and the white house to establish a health insurance system that covers every person and every illness. Nothing less is acceptable for a great democracy.
“Freedom is never voluntary given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Bush administration seems more intent on maintaining the status quo at the expense of those who have traditionally been left out and left behind. Indeed, Karl Marx, the German philosopher’s prediction regarding the polemical nature of capitalism (owners and managers versus workers) has come true, especially when considering how the wealthy are consistently enfranchised at the expense of the poor, the black and brown, women, gays and lesbians which is precisely what the Bush administration has maintained since he “won” the election.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s landmark “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered at the conclusion of what was then the largest organized display of civil solidarity. Given before some quarter of million people crowded into the national mall, Dr. King’s prophetic speech called a nation in crisis to do away with the immorality of Jim Crow racism and segregation, which was the order of day, and encouraged blacks to use non-violence toward the goal of full racial equality and social justice. As a result of Dr. King and other civil rights leaders’ struggles, white America would eventually institute laws that gave blacks, for the first time, real hope and promise. And although some progress toward social justice has been made, enduring problems and challenges abound for black Americans in this a socalled post-civil rights era. Blacks, in general, continue to suffer persistent racism at the hands of white individuals and white dominated organizations, and working class African Americans remain economically disenfranchised from the dream so vividly envisioned by Dr. King.
This summer’s observance of the historic March was an important symbolic gesture even if for nothing more than how it brought together concerned Americans, activists, community and civil rights leaders of all racial and ethnic groups to speak out against social injustice in all its forms. But I wonder if the strategy of marching and protesting has outlived its day? As I ponder about what went on at the march, I notice that newer generations of civil rights activists seemed unaffected by this tradition whose roots are deeply entwined with the practice of civil disobedience. Many young people in the hip hop community seem to think or feel that because they have greater freedoms, today, to move about and acquire jobs they have somehow “arrived.” They seem not to understand that their much-improved circumstances came about because of the sacrifices of many people who risked their lives for freedoms sake. Their freedoms came through a long sordid history of agitation against white supremacy and institutional racism that restricted their forbearer’s full participation in the American dream. I’m sure the march helped them get some sense of this, but in and of itself, I do not think it is enough.
Despite growing resistance to racial oppression and other gradual reforms, “full inclusion” in the dream continues to meet many stumbling blocks. Public education could help provide the understanding and platform that could lead to social change for youth, but instead, it often sustains the (re) production of classism and racial inequality. Poor facilities, a Eurocentric curriculum, tracking, and an abundance of uncaring teachers who have preconceived notions about their students of color—particularly black students—all serve to create an environment whereby young people are not expected to excel in school. Quite naturally, the inadequate preparation in public education ultimately translates into fewer opportunities in jobs and higher education, and even an awareness among the youth color of just how disenfranchised they are. Many do not even know the outline of the “dream” against which they can measure their current life conditions.
In addition, many white politicians fail to appreciate how much racism(s) shapes their lives, as well as, people of color and they are therefore unmoved by civil protest. They figure that America has already done its part in alleviating social injustice. The Johnson administration passed two significant laws; the civil rights act of 1964 and the voting rights act of 1965, which legislatively redressed the evils of white supremacy. These politicians, along with their constituents assume that because changes were wrought forty years ago there is no longer a struggle. Racism is a thing of the past. So when they meet civil unrest today, whether in the form of speeches, marches, or all out violent revolts like the 1992 LA rebellion, they assume that “those people” are ungrateful for the wonderful things this nation has done for communities of color. And perhaps more importantly, many white Americans are under the false pretense that this nation has atoned for its past ills of social injustice and it is now the responsibility of each individual (they say) to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and become productive citizens.
Whiteness theory has emerged in academic circles in the past twenty years. It describes the cognition and seemingly natural state of American-ness, which is synonymous with being white. I find it a helpful tool in explicating the “new racism” of white America and how Jim Crow has metamorphosed into a more subtle, kinder and gentler form of racist expression. According to whiteness theory, white people do not “see” racism because they are the beneficiaries of its privileges. They assume that racism is confined to acts of meanness against someone of another race. This simplistic definition of racism conceals the more destructive reality of racism as an institutional structure that has a life of its own. The manifestations of racism are not necessarily acts of violence like lynching against people of color but are found in racist policies and practices that do not take into consideration the voices and viewpoints of people of color. The whiteness of state, local and federal policies universalizes laws and procedures that more often than not harm communities of color. For example, the controversial Patriot Act, which is being vigorously pursued by the United States attorney general John Ashcroft attempts to negate a portion of our civil liberties under the guise of home land security. I do not know if Americans fully comprehend the danger in such a policy. The federal government would be granted even more power to invade into the private lives of American citizens through the use of wire phone taps and illegal searches of anyone whom it deems as “suspicious” or a “threat” to national security. Historically, these “suspicious” characters have usually meant black or brown folks, which may explain their overrepresentation in U.S. jails and prisons. Whiteness provides the backdrop for racism in that whites conduct business with little or no thought or understanding of the need for diversity in policymaking. A government that does not take into account the voice and will of all people under its jurisdiction is guilty of white supremacy thus perpetuating racism.
The unearned privileges of whiteness translate into increased structural opportunities for white people within institutions that relegate people of color under the rubric of procedural “fairness” and “neutrality.” A good example of these concepts are in standardized test taking, but how can institutions really be “fair” when there are no people of color co-constructing policies, methods and procedures in organizations? Without black representation and voice in policy-making in whatever organization, there will remain a profound distrust on the part of black Americans about the intentions of white controlled institutions, and many of these organizations will consciously or unconsciously engage in racist practices. For example, the Exxon Corporation was caught on tape devising a plan to exclude people of color from promotion thus relegating them to entry-level positions with no chance for mobility.
The New Social
The new social rights agenda of the twenty first century needs to concentrate on several tasks. The agenda must continue to help define what it means to be black in a white supremacist nation, and, in so doing strive for a greater and more vocal representation in our nation’s government. Reeducate the public that racism is not only about attitudes and behaviors. Calling someone the “N” word or burning a cross on her lawn, for example, is undeniably despicable, but this sort of action is a mirror reflection of racist thinking that has led to this personal action. Many white Americans overwhelmingly assume that because they are not name-calling or committing acts of violence against people of color they cannot possibly be racist. I am very glad that many Americans despise being thought of as “racist,” and much of the aversion to this label is the result of what Dr. King and others accomplished in the sixties, but racism has to do with more than just individuals. Racism is also present in a civilizational worldview that preaches the dogma of a “neutral” and “colorblind” world yet whose laws and goals about educational obtainment and social mobility have been designed by and for whites but passed off as universal for all Americans. It does not surprise black folks when whites incessantly utter that we are not working hard enough or that the system is race neutral. Colorblind racism is the new enemy of social rights; an unfortunate new rhetoric created by the pounding and twisting of Dr. King’s vision of a colorblind society. Many Americans assume that 1964 transformed this nation into a raceless society; in other words, we jumped from racist to nonracist with the stroke of a pen.
It is not that simple. It takes work to move beyond the crippling effects of institutional racism, and I am convinced that what Dr. King started forty years ago must not be abandoned because of a few freedoms and opportunities that have been gained for privileged middle class blacks. No, we must not rest until the poor and needy have greater chances of providing a life for themselves and their families. The new social rights initiative needs more young bodies that will mobilize into political action, especially if they will draw on the intellectual resources of organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League. More importantly, blacks need to build coalitions with various organizations committed to ending social injustice. Younger generations of blacks involved in the struggle must reconnect with the history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation in order to contest “the political right and all forces, both personal and institutional, which aim to roll back the clock.” This generation must not allow the illusion of racial equality thwart the cause of human liberation—there is currently nothing to celebrate for black Americans until all Americans, regardless of race, are economically and politically free.
We must keep hope alive through greater political participation. Black Americans have to vote for individuals who best represent their needs, and they must realize that just because someone is black it does not necessarily mean that they understand the black experience. Our experiences as African Americans are not monolithic but are rather a cornu- copia of music, social consciousness, poetry, dance and the struggle for human liberation within different locales and regions of the nation. African American Californians, for example, have a different social history and experience with whiteness than blacks living in Boston’s Roxbury district or in Selma, Alabama.
What all African Americans do share in common, however, is racial oppression. Many upper middle class blacks complain of constant discrimination at the hands of whites. They are not insulated from racial discrimination because racism still has a visual component. The first thing that is noticed about a person is not their wallet, but the color of their skin. Skin color then relegates them to a series of racial assumptions and subsequent stereotypes that are based on particular historical occurrences that each racial group has had with white America. African Americans, Latino/as, Native Americans and Asians Americans have all had some past encounter with white supremacy that has created racial assumptions about each group in some grossly distorted way. For example, blacks are less intelligent and Asian’s are more intelligent than average. Eventually these ideas create conditions whereby certain racial groups receive greater or lesser access to education or other avenues leading to economic advantage. A new social rights agenda should focus on bringing to light these subtle and abhorrently unjust systems of oppression that have become “naturalized” within the American fabric.
Until all Americans have three square meals a day, jobs that provide a living wage and equal pay for equal service, the fortieth anniversary march was not much more than an observance. It needs to be a beginning. It needs to be a jumpstart for deep reflection about Dr. King’s dream and how the dream has been deferred and will remain so unless all of us realize the caustic effects of the systemic racism and other injustices, which continue to polarize our nation. It takes much work that goes beyond legislation to change the hearts and minds of a people. White people must recognize that one way in which racism is perpetuated is in the unearned privileges of being white. And black people must stop believing the mythology of them as inferior (this is difficult given the constant images of popular culture) and continue working toward a new definition of blackness that falls outside the scope of whiteness and white supremacy. The way ahead will be difficult.
Organizational structures and cultures do not change easily. We as African Americans must do our part. We must register to vote and elect responsible government officials who care about the needs of the black community enough to upset the white elite’s sense of entitlement. Rioting and civil defiance may not be the most effective way at achieving a political advantage, but when a people are denied voice they will often lash out in violent and hostile ways.
It is imperative that social and civil rights reform begin with all Americans—white people in particular. Too many white Americans believe that racism is completely a psychosocial affair therefore they are unable to “see” racism as a national problem. Until white people become as outraged about racism as people of color, social change will remain elusive. Social rights, like civil rights, at least partially, should be about teaching whites who remain in darkness over the vexing issue of racism and social injustice. And the responsibility for educating whites should not be the responsibility of people of color, but rather antiracist whites must shoulder that burden. These antiracist whites are persons who were schooled by people of color; they were able to teach them about the realities of racial oppression and how whites benefit from white supremecy. In order for America to become the nation it could be we must continue to push for change. The dream is not yet ful- filled and there is still work to do.