Over the weekend, thousands of people gathered on the National Mall to commemorate the upcoming 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom.
In his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for America’s “bank of justice” to repay a metaphorical check of freedom and security to African-Americans, and to abandon racial separation for national unity. Unfortunately, civil-rights progress has stalled over the past half-century, while new attacks on social equality threaten to bankrupt the nation.
Fifty years after a great day for civil-rights, the daily experience of the average African-American is still marked by racism and exclusion from the “American Dream.”
The symbolism of a Black president has distracted public attention away from the on-going crises in poverty, public education, residential segregation, unemployment, incarceration, and health. Despite the promise of a post-racial America, a litany of social science statistics indicate that a new generation of Black children, in particular, will grow up in communities plagued by concentrated poverty, joblessness, and hopelessness.
Hard-won victories to desegregate our nation’s public schools have been reversed by the courts. A recent report by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project confirms that Black students today are as segregated from white students as they were in the 1960s. According to the study, one out of every six Black and Latino student attends high poverty “apartheid schools” with no White students, few resources, and under qualified teachers.
Our failure to address separate and unequal schooling helps explain why only 10% of Black male 8th graders are reading on grade level, and why only 50% of Black boys are graduating from high school on time.
In today’s information economy, a college degree is increasingly necessary for middle-class employment, and our global competitiveness relies on a highly trained workforce. Yet, in the nearly 60 years since Brown vs. the Board of Education, the black-white gap in college completion has only widened.
One hundred fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, there remains two Black Americas. There is the Black underclass, “new slaves” caught in the revolving door of poverty, despair, miseducation, and incarceration. Worsening material conditions for many Black Americans has coincided with the obliteration of Affirmative Action programs meant to level the playing field in employment and education.
On the other hand, there is a “free” Black elite comprised of the Obama’s, Jay Z’s, and Oprah’s who have extraordinary political and economic privilege. MLK’s dream of a self-sufficient, Black working and middle-class, whose struggle and merit would result in full inclusion into American society, has yet to become a reality.
At the March on Washington, Dr. King warned about the anger caused by the “unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” In this month’s ruling against NYPD’s controversial “Stop-and-Frisk” policy, Judge Scheindlin describes how millions of innocent Black and Latino citizens were humiliated and demeaned by intrusive police surveillance between 2002 and 2013.
A report by one organization suggests that police and vigilantes shot and killed 313 Black males in 2012, the equivalent of one Black man every 28 hours. Not one officer or “concerned” citizen has been convicted.
Rage and distrust of the criminal justice system have reached a boiling point after George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of Treyvon Martin, a tragedy that has divided America along racial lines and reopened the wounds of Jim Crow lynching circa Emmett Till.
On August 28, 2013, the day of the 50th anniversary, President Obama will speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. His speech comes at a dangerous moment for U.S. race relations.
A Black family in the White House has sparked a resurgence of racial paranoia and hate-mongering. As the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented, hate groups and militia memberships are up over 800% since Obama was first elected.
Gun sales have also skyrocketed 90%, with 73 million background checks for gun purchases since Obama has been in office.
Sadly, Obama’s desire for his “MLK moment” will likely be undermined by two realities. First, MLK’s words were buoyed in a sea of 250,000 protesters who represented decades of strategic lunch counter sit-ins, grassroots organizing, and audacious hope practiced by youth activists of the Civil Rights generation.
However articulate Obama’s speech, it will be delivered in the cultural context of drive-by activism of the YouTube-Twitter generation too focused on online protests and celebrity driven politics.
If there is a new Civil Rights movement on the horizon, the revolution will not be Tweeted.
Second, the March on Washington called for the restoration of freedom for all Americans. Yet, worker’s rights, women’s rights and reproductive freedom, environmental justice, and privacy are all under siege in Obama’s America.
Given the administration’s track record on trampling civil liberties through warrantless surveillance, the prosecution of whistleblowers, and drone assassinations of foreign nationals, Mr. Obama has yet to demonstrate the moral vision and restraint necessary to unite the nation and realize Dr. King’s dream.
Travis L. Gosa is an Assistant Professor at Cornell University's Africana Studies & Research Center. He is the editor of the forthcoming book "Hip-Hop & Obama: Remixing Change" (Oxford Unversity Press, 2014). His popular writings have appeared in various outlets including The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ebony, and Hip Hop Republican. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @basedprof.