The Common Good

The Dream Deferred for Millions of Americans

In his "I Have a Dream" speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." It is during this time of year that we, as Americans, ask ourselves how close are we to achieving this ideal espoused by Dr. King. Do we live in a country that has transcended the brutally ugly -- and often violent -- racism that has in many ways defined our country during much of its history?

It is tempting to answer "yes," and to highlight, as evidence, many of the achievements and gains over the last several decades, including the election of that "skinny kid with a funny name" to the White House. Yet the sad reality remains that even more than 45 years after Dr. King's speech, far too many people living in this country are still defined not by their character or abilities, but by their racial and ethnic background.

A few recent statistics tell the story:

  • A 2009 study found that 32 percent of Latinos said that they, a family member, or a close friend was discriminated against in the past five years because of their racial or ethnic background. With the passage of Arizona's new immigration law, SB 1070, and similar measures, that number has likely increased in recent months.
  • A 2005 Gallup poll revealed that 31 percent of Asian-Americans and 26 percent of blacks reported experiencing an incident of discrimination while at work during the previous 12 months.
  • One national survey reported that a majority of Latinos do not have confidence that they will be treated fairly by police officers. That same survey found that nearly two-thirds of blacks (as opposed to approximately one quarter of whites) do not believe that local police officers treat blacks and whites equally.
  • Recent unemployment rates strongly indicate that the color of people's skin still plays a role in the job market. In the fall of 2010, when the unemployment rate was 8.7 percent for whites, it was 12.4 percent for Latinos, and 16.1 percent for blacks. A recent study found that nearly 40 percent of previously employed black New Yorkers were unemployed for more than a year during the recession. That same number is 24 percent for whites.

These alarming and discomforting statistics should not cause us to lose faith in the ideal that Dr. King espoused on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial decades ago. Rather, they should serve as a reminder that despite the progress that has been made, Dr. King's dream has not yet been realized for millions of Americans. They also should serve as a challenge: that we use this day not merely to reflect on the legacy of a slain hero, but that we also take it as an opportunity to address the inequalities and discriminations that still permeate our society.

And that is a challenge that people of faith are particularly capable of meeting. After all, it was Dr. King's faith that gave him the courage to stand in the face of deeply entrenched racism and demand justice. It was his faith that allowed him to persevere when all outward signs probably told him to stop. It was his faith that allowed him to understand the essential truth that while "we must accept finite disappointment, [ ] we must never lose infinite hope."

portrait-johnathan-smithJohnathan Smith is a New York-based lawyer. He also serves as a youth minister at Gethsemane Baptist Church.

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