Race is the one thing that has bedeviled America from the very beginning. The promise of a truly equitable and free people has always been an intellectual exercise, separated off in the mind of great thinkers like Thomas Jefferson from the obvious but emotionally difficult reality of slavery and separation by race. Equality under the law is somehow separate and not equal to equality in culture and the reality of everyday life.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday is as good a day as any to look back and see what progress we’ve made over the last year. It looks pretty bleak all around. Black America is still separate and in far too many ways not equal. Economic and social change has created a vocal backlash of whites, afraid and angry, who lash out at the very idea that progress towards a united and free society is even desirable.
But there is hope – because at least we are starting to talk about the problem.
Tavis Smiley is a great intellectual leader in America today not only because his analysis is so spot on but because he tells everything just as he sees it. The release of his book “The Covenant with Black America – Ten Years Later” is a progress report on his original work which outlined what needs to change to reach some level of reasonable equality in America. His take on the state of things is dismal:
“The bad news is — and it pains me to say it — but in every major economic category, Black folk have lost ground over the last ten years.”
That’s hardly surprising given how dismal the economy has been since at least 2006. Black America is always left behind in this nation always fundamentally defined by race. When times are hard for everyone, they are especially hard for Black America. That’s always been true and it sadly always will be. Progress is only made when we are happy and have resources that extend beyond selfishly defined goals.
The progress we need is more social than personal. To achieve it, we have to first have social awareness and then actually care about the problem.
The rise of Black Lives Matter hardly seems like progress either, given that it came from the necessity of forcing the nation to confront the obvious fact that black people are more likely to be arrested and killed by police than whites are. The protests shut down events and garnered attention – but did they do anything?
The short answer is that yes, for all the difficulty, many whites at least here in Minnesota have been forced to admit that Minneapolis is racist to the core. From the highways that wall off North Minneapolis to the way the budget is allocated to the way the city is policed, everything is different if you are black. And we’re finally acknowledging this fact and realizing that it holds everyone back. People of all races know this has to change.
Black people are not the enemy – they are our neighbors and partners in building a better world.
Part of this small but important change comes from the realization that economic times are, slowly, getting better. There is a new economy rising up around us and it does have room for everyone of all races. But how do we get there from here? How do we close the gaps that great leaders like Tavis Smiley can describe so eloquently and purposely?
The short answer is that in this election we have to hold our potential leaders accountable and demand that equity is part of the equation. That is also happening, at least on the Democratic side, but the Republicans have found more instant gratification by appealing to those who are still afraid of the change – afraid that the pie never grows and that re-allocation always means there are winners and losers.
Until that changes we will have a problem. We can’t expect those in a position of privilege to simply give up what they have without a fight, although it would be wonderful if they were intellectually enlightened enough for that to happen. It hasn’t at any point in our history, not even in the mind of Thomas Jefferson, so it is unreasonable to expect it to happen now.
Not until we settle down to an understanding that there is opportunity in America, that there must be, can we truly start to get past the self-centered belief that there are winners and losers. That is the next piece of our progress now that voices have been raised and engaged in the definition of the problem.
Black America is still far too separate, far too unequal. But some of us are starting to acknowledge this with clear unwavering voices. That’s nowhere near enough progress, but it points the way to real change in the years ahead. We have to insist on that equality and confront the anger and fear that denies progress is possible or even desirable. We have to make our most aspirational dreams real and move forward together.
Opportunity for all is opportunity for Black America. It is the one real hope for all of America, free at last – thank God almighty. Separate and unequal is not a state of freedom for anyone because when some among us are legitimately afraid and hopeless we are all afraid and hopeless. That has to change before there is real progress on the greatest issue that has held America back from its promise since the very beginning.