Racial Equality: It's Still Only A Dream

Last Saturday, I woke from my comfortable bed in my luxury, high-rise apartment in Arlington, Virginia. I donned my Oakley shades and a Ralph Lauren V-neck and headed for the elevator. I greeted the concierge at the front desk as I helped myself to a complimentary cup of coffee, grabbed a free newspaper and headed to the Metro stop steps from my residence.

This is how I began the day that would mark the 50th Anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech. Though the hour was early, the station was alive. As the train doors opened to accept the sea of people awaiting it, I stepped inside and posted myself against a wall. As Rick Ross’s “Hustlin” blared from my Bose headphones, I scanned the train taking note of my fellow travelers.

It was an eclectic crowd; there were, of course, the ever-present tourists scattered among native Washingtonians on their way to a Saturday shift in the city, or more likely, brunch with friends. But the vast majority of people, including myself, were on their way to the National Mall to join 100,000 others in a gathering to commemorate the historic March on Washington that took place on August 28, 1963.

To my right sat two African-American women. One wore a shirt that depicted two angelic, ghostly faces against the backdrop of an original image taken at the Lincoln Memorial when Dr. King delivered his famous speech. One of the faces was Dr. King. The other was Trayvon Martin.

I disembarked the train at Farragut West, one block north from the White House. As I ascended the escalator to the street, I was greeted by a brilliant blue sky and an angry, megaphone-aided rant echoing across Farragut Park. There, a man stood atop a makeshift platform rallying a crowd of roughly 50 people with chants of “no justice, no peace.” Most of his audience was holding red signs featuring a bold, large white font that read “End Mass Incarceration and the New Jim Crow.”

Immediately, it became clear that the day would not be a celebration of how far the African-American community has come in the 50 years since we first heard the dream, but rather a redress to the nation on where it still needs to go.

As I needled through throngs of people bused in from all over the country en route to the Reflecting Pool, I noticed a group of people gathered around a guitar singing the 20th century gospel “This Little Light of Mine.” While the song played, the speaker at the podium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial began a statement where he exclaimed “when Trayvon can be shot down and the perpetrator is set free…” and ended it with “we are all Trayvon, and the whole damn system is broken.”

It was at that moment that I felt ashamed. Ashamed for how I began my day. Ashamed for the fact that I had left for the event that morning believing that my participation would represent some grand show of solidarity with the African-American community. Ashamed that though I both recognize and deplore the institutionalized racism that still exists in this country, I can never really understand what it means to be subjected to it. Ashamed that I arrived to the event listening to Rick Ross.

I came into this world with the advantage of being white. I was more likely to graduate from high school, go to college and live a comfortable life on Day One out of the womb than an African-American boy born at exactly the same time. This is the byproduct of a system that elevated me to an unfair advantage. And while the Civil Rights movement began the effort to overhaul an institution that overtly subjugated African-Americans to the status of second class citizens, we have not done enough to truly level the playing field.

The byproduct of centuries-long disadvantage is clear when you examine the statistics. In 2010, the national graduation rate for black male students was 52 percent. In Washington D.C., that rate falls to 37 percent while 88 percent of white men receive a degree. In New York, a white male is 42 percent more likely to graduate from high school than a black male.

The numbers don’t improve for higher education. Nationally, less than half of black students who enroll in a four year college graduate within six years. Federal analysis by the U.S. Department of Education shows that minority students have less access to experienced teachers, resulting in these figures.

This education system that fails to graduate black students has resulted in the wealth disparity between black and white households quadrupling since 1984, according to the Institute on Assets and Social Policy (IASP) at Brandeis University. IASP suggests that “the dramatic gap in household wealth that now exists along racial lines in the United States cannot be attributed to personal ambition and behavioral choices, but rather reflects policies and institutional practices that create different opportunities for whites and African-Americans.”

The outcome? One out of four African-American women and one out of three African-American men ages 18-24 are unemployed. More broadly, this has contributed to a condition where more than 27 percent of the African-American community is living in poverty.

This cycle of poverty, which has plagued the black community throughout American history, produces some troubling consequences. One in every 15 black males are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white males. Despite the fact that African-Americans account for 14 percent of regular drug users, they comprise 37 percent of those who are arrested for drug-related crimes. In sentencing, a black offender can expect to receive 10 percent longer prison stays than a white offender who committed the same crime. Additionally, African-Americans are 21 percent more likely to be charged with a crime that carries a mandatory minimum sentence and 20 percent more likely to receive prison time for a crime.

As the idea crept into my head that I was simply on the right side of a broken system, I realized that the shame that I was feeling wasn't the result of something I had personally done, or even condoned. I was feeling our national shame. Shame for the fact that we live in a country that claims to embrace at its core the credo that all men and women, equal under the laws of both nature and man, are able to succeed as long as they are willing to try. But not everyone starts the race at the same place on the track. Sometimes, the distance is just impossible to make up.

Real equality has never truly existed in this country. If it had, would Barack Obama’s election to the presidency be that big of a deal? Would Oprah’s success be considered so remarkable? Would Rev. Al Sharpton still have a national audience?

The problem is that in order for this condition of inequality to change, we need to create an environment where the African-American community feels that it can fully trust in the leadership. A black president isn't enough to warrant that kind of trust when your state legislature is actively trying to suppress your vote with new identification laws. It isn't enough when Congress has gerrymandered all of the black people in your state into the same district. It isn't enough when in 2013, the Supreme Court guts all of the provisions in Civil Rights Act that were intended for your racial group.

The distrust is real and in many ways warranted. While I cannot empathize, I can understand its merit. I’ll always remember the "South Park" episode where Stan’s father accidentally says the N-word on television. Stan becomes furious when his black friend Token refuses to forgive his father, despite Randy’s multiple efforts to apologize to the African-American community.

Efforts that included kissing Rev. Jesse Jackson on his backside. Stan grows furious and frustrated with Token for being so unwilling to forgive Randy that their entire friendship hangs in jeopardy. At the end of the episode, Stan and Token are only able to reconcile after Stan’s epiphany where he realizes that he just can’t, and never will, be able to understand why Token was so upset. He could sympathize with Token, but he could never empathize with him.

I had the same epiphany as I left the event to return to my plush Arlington digs. I’ll never fully understand what the black community felt when Trayvon Martin was killed. I’ll never understand how it felt for Shirley Sherrod when she lost her job because some white jerk posted a video of her in the wrong context. I’ll never understand what it feels like to be stopped and frisked in New York City while the white guy walking past goes unchecked.

What I do understand is that there is still more work to be done.  And that perhaps the time is now ripe for the next civil rights movement to take hold. A movement where our nation can finally rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.

Top Photo courtesy Wiki Commons