“Do you know why today is super important for American history?” This was the question I asked each of my students before classes began.
Most responded with, “No,” though one cheeky girl guessed, “hump day?”
“Close,” I said. “It’s actually the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s I have a dream speech.”
“Oh,” said one of my second-graders, a feisty lady with dyslexia and perfect blonde curls. “So black kids can play with white kids and everyone can ride the bus together, right? I learned about it in the first grade.”
“I’m glad you did! Do you think we still have racism in America?”
“Nope!” she said happily.
She’s a sharp kid, but she’s wrong, of course. Race has reentered the national conversation in a big way within the last few months alone, from the murder of Trayvon Martin, for which neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was tried and found innocent despite killing an unarmed black teenager, to Miley Cyrus’ recent appropriation of black culture in her MTV Music Video Awards performance, during which she showed off her twerking skills and used black women as accessories on which to gyrate and bodies for consumption. Equality is clearly still a dream to be realized from a cultural perspective, but economic disparities haven’t much improved either. Consider this: on August 28, 1963, the demonstration led by King in D.C. fought demonstration was officially called “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”
twelve-year old Edith Lee Payne at the March. photo courtesy of the Library of Congress by Rowland Scherman
So, fifty years later, how about those”jobs” and that “freedom”? Last week, the Pew Research Center released some pretty discouraging data in light of this question.
The gap between the number of blacks and whites living above the poverty line has barely decreased, while the gap between the percentage of people who claim homeownership as actually widened a bit.
Plus, the unemployment rate for backs has consistently remained at double the percent of the white unemployment rates since 1954 (today, 13.4% unemployment rate for blacks and 6.7% for whites):
Some gaps have actually widened, such as in the case of median household income, median household wealth and the marriage rate.
Gaps have narrowed a bit in some areas too. More students of both races are graduating from high school, life expectancy rate has risen, and the 2012 presidential election witnessed 67% of eligible blacks cast their ballots, whereas 64% of eligible whites cast theirs. A bright spot, but far behind where we should be fifty years following “I have a dream.”
We’ve got the numbers that prove equality is illusory, and further, to claim color-blindness is to become complicit in a system that favors the majority. Wrestle with that one for a bit.
(all photos from the Library of Congress. Warren K. Leffler, photos 1, 4; Rowland Scherman, photo 2; Leonard Freed, photo 3)