Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have A Dream" speech, delivered on August 28, 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to over 250,000 attendees, is the defining moment of the Civil Rights era. While the speech is raw and powerful, it has lost most of its luster over the years, including its ability to influence the drive towards racial equality. Clips of the speech have become cherished symbols rather than reminders that the dream of racial equality only continues if subsequent generations put in the work. No dream comes true by thinking alone. Dreams are achieved by acting on beliefs, by taking risks, and by truly believing that by taking those risks you are transcending the status quo and creating a better future.
As America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the famous March on Washington this weekend, citizens must remember that work still needs to be done to achieve racial equality. According to a Pew Research Center poll released on Thursday, fewer than half of Americans believe the U.S. has made "substantial progress" on racial equality. Only 48% of white respondents answered "a lot" to the question asking how much progress toward MLK's dream of racial equality the U.S. has made over the last 50 years. Only one-third (32%) of blacks responded that they believe a lot of progress has been made, and just over one-quarter (27%) said that they believe "little or no" progress was made towards racial equality in the last 50 years.
The killings of Trayvon Martin and Christopher Lane remind us that the barriers between races continue to manifest through hateful speech and violence. While optimists desperately want to declare America "post racial" or "race equal," it is not yet the case. While many obvious expressions of discrimination have been defeated, the economic gap between blacks and whites has persisted at almost the same level since 1963. Today the unemployment rate among whites is 6.6%, while for blacks it is 12.6%. If you are black in America today, you are more likely to not have healthcare (21%), and six times as likely as a white American to be murdered. There is still plenty work to be done in communities, the government, the media, and in the justice system to ensure equal opportunities and more consistent outcomes for black Americans.
The next step towards race equality will be realized when Americans no longer use physical traits like skin color or race to describe a person of another color, but rather describe people of other races the same way they would someone of their own. King spoke from the feet of Abraham Lincoln on his hope that his children could one day live in a nation that judges them by the "content of their character" rather than the "color of their skin." It is only when we can look around and not see race that we can transcend this status quo in which divisive speech and inter-race violence make headlines. However, that can only go so far. After all, equal opportunities do not necessarily translate into equal outcomes. Perhaps these recent deaths and divisive court cases are needed to bring us out of the ashes of our violent past and create an America free of racism, legal injustice, and systemic inequality.
Every day the lines dividing the races in America blur more and more. For millenials, making sure those lines disappear completely before we pass on our torch to the next generation is one of our pressing challenges. I know we are up for it. Americans, wherever you are, enjoy the festivities this weekend honoring the March on Washington. Stand in awe of the passion and courage of those who made it possible to be where we are today. Remember there is still work to do.