Last Sunday - on the 48th anniversary of Dr. King's most famous speech - the official dedication of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was to have taken place. That was before Hurricane Irene delayed it. But I've been to the memorial. It's an impressive, imposing, dramatic and fitting tribute to one of our greatest Americans. It sits in line between the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, author of the Declaration of Independence, and the Abraham Lincoln Memorial, who saved the Union and ended slavery. The four-acre memorial site is located next to the Tidal Basin, surrounded by the Japanese-donated cherry blossom trees, at 1964 Independence Avenue, SW - a tribute to the 1964 Civil Rights Act which he helped pass. All of you must go to the nation's capital at some point and visit this impressive monument - maybe even attend the upcoming official dedication in September or October. There's no doubt about it - you will be impressed and moved.
Tonight I've been asked to address "The State of Race Relations Today." One almost has to refer back to Charles Dickens 1859 novel Tale of Two Cities to properly capture the state of today's race relations. Let me quote and apply to today some of that tale's opening words: "It was the best of times" - President Barack Obama is elected the 44th and first African American President of the United States. "It was the worst of times" - unemployment is the worst since the Great Depression, and is beyond Depression levels in the Black community, along with a housing foreclosure crisis. "It was the age of wisdom" - President Barack Obama and Dr. Henry Louis Gates. "It was the age of foolishness" - Michele Bachman, Rick Perry, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Sarah Palen, Rick Santorum, Thaddeus McCotter and Newt Gingrich. "It was the epoch of belief" - change you can believe in. "It was the epoch of incredulity" - Republicans use their House majority and the Senator filibuster to block any presidential initiative and never give him credit for anything. "It was the season of Light" - Rachel Maddow and Bill Maher. "It was the season of Darkness" - Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and FOX News generally. "It was the spring of hope" - An end to the Great Recession. "It was the winter of despair" - For African Americans the DEPRESSION continues. "We had everything before us" - health care for all. "We had nothing before us" - Republican attempts to cut and privatize Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. "We were all going direct to heaven" - full of hope for the future. "We were all going direct the other way" - the fight over raising the debt ceiling threatened to destroy the world economy.
That's the state of race relations in 2011: Barack Obama, President of the most powerful nation on earth on one hand; and James C. Anderson, the victim of a beating and murder at the hands of some young white teenagers in Mississippi who just wanted to "mess with" some African Americans on the other.
A recent Washington Post Poll offered an interesting perspective. When asked whether the United States has fulfilled the vision Martin Luther King outlined in his "I Have A Dream" speech, both Whites (57%) and Blacks (56%) said "No"; while 36% of Blacks and only 30% of Whites said "Yes."
Recently I had a student from Emerson University ask me several questions related to the issue of our discussion tonight and I thought my answer to his questions might give you some insight into where I think race relations in America are today. He asked me three questions:
His first questions was: Martin Luther King, Jr. said that "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice," but according to the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, "At the beginning of the twenty-first century, American public schools are now 12 years into the process of continuous re-segregation." Is the trajectory of racial morality still bending toward justice? Or is de facto segregation the perpetual status quo of American society?
I told him I believe, as Dr. King believed, that the arc of the universe bends toward justice - but it's not a perfect arc. The arc will have twists and turns in it. The facts are as you state them - America's public schools are being re-segregated. That is true partly because we have not had strong leadership on this issue from either the White House or the Congress - from either Democrats or Republicans - and re-segregation is the consequence.
The solution I have offered is an Education Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (House Joint Resolution 29) that would guarantee in our highest law "a public education of equal high quality" for all of America's children. Part of the re-segregation problem now is that education has been downgraded at the national level in real ways, mostly by Republicans; and urban America is increasingly black, brown and poor and many of their schools are underperforming. While I consider desegregation and integration of our schools a very important goal, it is difficult to "integrate" white schools and white students, who are doing better, with black, brown and poor white schools and students who are not doing as well. I believe my amendment would "speed up the day" when all schools would be on a more equal footing and complete desegregation and real integration would be more likely to occur.
I see segregation, desegregation, separation, "re-segregation" and integration as five different issues. Segregation is "forced separation" of the races by law (e.g., Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896). Desegregation forces an end to legal segregation - i.e., "legal separation" of the races - by a counter law (Brown in 1954). While I don't necessarily advocate it, separation of the races can be voluntary and is not in-and-of-itself bad, if it's truly voluntary, if it doesn't discriminate against others, the separation reflects peoples' true choice and it doesn't negatively affect others - e.g., separation as a recognition of different styles of learning or religious worship, where others are welcome and are not inappropriately barred from attending or participating. Re-segregation is occurring along social, demographic, economic and class lines - not explicitly or directly as a result of laws specifically designed to segregate the races - but it involves the law and is not truly by choice either, which results in de facto separation and segregation, and it is not good. Integration is more a spiritual concept or outcome and will most likely take place in a desegregated setting when two human beings see each other as completely equal in every way. I often use the illustration of Michael Jordan and Steve Kerr. Michael Jordan and Steve Kerr were legally desegregated on the basketball court, but they were not spiritually integrated off of it. When Michael's father was murdered, he didn't know that Steve' father had also been murdered (in Lebanon while President of the American University in Beirut). If they had been "spiritually integrated" Michael would have already known about Steve's family and Steve could probably have been of some assistance in helping Michael through the trauma of the murder of his father.
His second question was: "Do you think our nation is avoiding racial dialogue? If so, what are some steps we can take towards having that conversation? If not, how would you appraise current dialogue about race? Is it healthy? Is it constructive? What exactly is it achieving?
I said, of course Americans are avoiding a serious discussion of race - it always has because it's not an easy subject. Race is a deep, historical, emotional, spiritual, religious, legal, constitutional, social, cultural, economic and political issue, and it's not a comfortable subject. African Americans don't want to be reminded of slavery and Caucasians don't want to confront on-going discrimination, and the social and economic disparities that still exist between the races and racism.
The real racial discussion today isn't taking place in openly racial terms. It's the discussion taking place around the Federal budget, the debt ceiling, deficits and the debt, and other economically related subjects - i.e., whether we're going to continue, as Dr. King said in his famous 1963 speech, receiving "bounced checks, marked insufficient funds" or are we going to focus on investing in all of our people, building and growing our economy in a way that everyone can participate and prosper more equally.
And in my judgment, if you're going to talk about race specifically, the dialogue needs to begin with definitions. In my experience, Blacks and Whites are usually talking past each other because they don't have the same perspective and understanding of the various ways of looking at the race issue, and without common definitions you can't understand what the different dimensions of the race problem are. In my experience, whites are mostly talking about "getting over prejudice" and African Americans are mostly talking about "the system" of institutional racism.
I think racism has a least six levels: (a) philosophical - any systematic attempt to hold one race as superior and another race as inferior is racist; (b) prejudice - that's prejudging an individual on the basis of a group stereotype - e.g., Asians are smart at math and Blacks are good dancers; (c) behavioral - the burning of a cross on a Black person's lawn, scribbling a swastika on the door of a Jewish synagogue; (d) cultural - most people are as good as they know to be, but many people have limited exposure and experiences with people of another race; (e) political - using code words or in other ways using race to achieve some narrow political end (e.g., to win an election like George Wallace did with "law and order" in 1968 or Bill Clinton did with "Sister Souljah" in 1992); and (f) institutional - the very structure, laws, politics and economics of a society that affects Blacks and Whites differently (e.g., in 1963 most Americans were very upset when the four little girls in the Birmingham church were killed because the church was bombed by white racists; but there wasn't the same outrage with the fact that black babies in that same county were many times more likely to die at childbirth than white babies.)
His third question was about the brutal murder of James Craig Anderson, which recently shocked the nation. The suspect, Daryl Dedmon, has been charged with committing a racially motivated hate crime. What does America need to consider as we seek to understand this event? What can we learn from it and how can we heal from it?
I said, obviously, that was a very terrible thing to happen, and it still happens occasionally in the U.S. So we must continue to make progress at the elementary level of just teaching tolerance and learning to accept and understand one another as basic human beings- or as Rodney King once said, "Can't we just all get along."
But that's not the fundamental problem of race relations now in our country. The fundament problem is systemic and institutional in nature - and it goes beyond race. Yes, it's the re-segregation of our schools, but it's also the general decline of education in America. Unfortunately, among 30 developed countries ranked by the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development, America ranks 25th in math and 21st in science. Only 33% of our 4th graders and 32% of our 8th graders are proficient in reading. 75% of American youth who apply to the military are ineligible to serve because of low cognitive capabilities, criminal records or obesity. From the 1960s to 2006, the U.S. fell from 1st to 18th out of 24 industrialized nations in high school graduation rates. Dropouts are 8 times more likely to be incarcerated. 82% of those in prison are high school dropouts. When it comes to early childhood education, state-funded, pre-K programs currently serve only 24% of 4-year-olds and 4% of 3-year-olds, with millions of families unable to access good-quality childcare. So the situation with respect to America's education system is bad but, generally speaking, it's even worse in Black, Brown and poor White schools.
And the same or similar racial disparities and problems exist in housing, health care, higher education, politics, job opportunities, business opportunities and more, all of which impact the African American and other minority communities negatively and disproportionately. Healing is in the full achievement of social, economic and political equality.
In conclusion, in my view, the best way to speed up the day for racial reconciliation and healing would be to add a Second Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution. I've proposed such legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2001 - House Joint Resolutions 28 to 36.
The original Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments) mainly deal with limiting government and granting individual political rights - freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion, limits to searches and seizures, the right to a fair and speedy trial, etc.
My proposed Second Bill of Rights deals mainly, but not exclusively, with economic rights - the right to vote; the right to a public education of equal high quality; the right to health care of equal high quality; equal rights for women; the right to decent, safe, sanitary, and affordable housing; the right to a clean, safe, and sustainable environment; taxing the people of the United States progressively; the right to full employment and balanced growth; and an amendment to abolish the Electoral College and provide for the direct election of the President and Vice President by the popular vote of all citizens of the United States regardless of place of residence.
Putting these economic rights in our highest law would speed up the day when true equality could become a greater reality, and such an economic circumstance would speed up the day of racial reconciliation and healing.
And when that day arrives you will be asking speakers like me to give speeches discussing the state of human relations not just race relations.