Still Just A Dream?

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had he lived, would have celebrated his 84th birthday this year. The vast political changes that have taken place since his assassination in 1968 are a testimony to the work of Dr. King and other activists of the modern civil rights movement. One might even argue that American society has gone through a metamorphosis of sorts.

By the early 1970s, Southern segregation laws were all but erased from the books. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 prohibited discrimination in housing. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson established and enhanced affirmative action programs to help level the playing field for African Americans, women and other minorities who had historically been denied opportunities in education, employment and other areas of American society. Today, as a group, African Americans and other minorities are obtaining college degrees in historically record numbers and, as a result, some are enjoying a higher standard of living. And what would seem to be the icing on the cake was the 2008 election of a biracial president. Barack Obama’s presidency is a first in our nation’s history.

Certainly Dr. King would be impressed by the forward movement America has made toward inclusion and equality for African Americans in contrast to the years before the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision, which ended school segregation and jump started the civil rights movement.

However, Dr. King would also be the first to point out that there is still much that remains to be done in 21st century America to improve opportunities and eliminate negative racial perceptions of African Americans and other minorities.

For example, in the current economic downturn, percentagewise, African Americans have an unemployment rate almost double that of white Americans. The disproportionately high unemployment rate for blacks is caused by many factors, including racial discrimination in the workplace and fewer educational opportunities. And while the percentage of African Americans who obtain a college degree has steadily increased over the years, it is still well below the national average.

Disturbing remarks made this month by two Republican presidential candidates demonstrate the persistence of certain toxic stereotypes among some of those who would lead our country. Newt Gingrich said that “the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps,” while Rick Santorum remarked that he doesn’t want to “make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money” — the assumption underlying these remarks being that black Americans are poor, ignorant, lazy people who prefer public assistance instead of employment. And in an election year, it isn’t difficult to see the connection Republican presidential candidates are making between the economy, politics, race and President Obama, who also happens to be black.

It has been almost 50 years since Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech — and yet, for so many Americans of African descent, the dream is still not a reality. If given a fair chance for a better life, black Americans would overwhelmingly choose the American Dream. It is a shame that African Americans are blamed for the institutionalized racism that keeps some of them poor, uneducated and lacking access to opportunities for a better life.

Happy birthday, Dr. King. Perhaps by the 100th anniversary of the articulation of your dream for America, we will have more positive accomplishments to show for our struggle.

Rita Reynolds, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of African-American history at Wagner College, a U.S. News & World Report Top 25 regional university located on New York City’s Staten Island. Professor Reynolds is working on a book on wealthy free women of color in antebellum Charleston, South Carolina.

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