One in three African-American children lives in poverty in the United States today. Unemployment among black youth is 41.6 percent and climbing, and 37 percent of prisoners are black, three times their share of the U.S. population.
This is sad testament to the vision of Martin Luther King Jr. who 50 years ago today stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and said, in a voice that has reverberated through the generations, "I have a dream.”
His dream of a nation where people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character was affirmed when U.S. President Barack Obama won the election in 2008 and again in 2012.
It is affirmed by the slow but steady narrowing of the income gap and the rise of a strong black middle class in America. Average incomes for black families in the last half century have risen to two-thirds that of white families, up from 57 percent when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke. The overall poverty rate among blacks had dropped to 28 percent by 2011 from 42 percent in 1966, U.S. Census data shows.
College education has risen tenfold, teenage pregnancy rates have fallen and black political representation has climbed. Today there are 43 African-American members of Congress and over 10,000 black elected politicians nationwide. In the 1960s, you could count those in Congress on one hand.
This rising prosperity and inclusion was palpable on Saturday when more than 100,000 people gathered on the Washington mall to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a watershed event that ushered in the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act a year later.
Saturday’s event was billed as a march for jobs and justice, but it was more a Sunday outing than a protest. Why? Perhaps because wealth in the United States has spread more widely today, more people are comfortable, and the face of poverty and discrimination, though troubling, is no longer predominantly black.
Yet saying these words clouds crucial differences. As the statistics I began with show, race just like gender continues to matter profoundly in civil society and in politics in America. The experience of race is a very different one.
Take the shooting of Trayvon Martin on the night of Feb. 26, 2012, in Florida, a deeply disturbing example of the dangers of “walking while black.” The African-American teenager was heading home from the store, chatting on his phone to a girlfriend about sports, when he was stopped by a man patrolling his gated community and in the scuffle that followed, shot dead. Police at first did not arrest his assailant, George Zimmerman, on the grounds that he acted in self-defence. A jury this year cleared Zimmerman of murder and manslaughter. Florida has a law that allows someone who feels threatened to “stand your ground.”
In Texas, the state has passed a voter identification law that the U.S. Justice Department says disenfranchises blacks and Hispanics by requiring photo IDs that these racial groups disproportionately lack. North Carolina has adopted a similar law after the Supreme Court knocked down a key part of enforcing the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Why, asked one speaker at Saturday’s march, could blacks vote for President Richard Nixon, for President Jimmy Carter, for President Ronald Reagan and for three other white presidents without presenting IDs, and when they vote for a black man the rules change?
Today President Obama will stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and bells will ring across the nation to mark the 150th anniversary of the proclamation to end slavery in the United States, and the 50th anniversary of King’s speech.
He will remind us that King’s struggle for freedom and social justice, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation, is a flame that must never die.