It would be easy to be cynical about the progress (not) made in civil rights in the 50 years marked since MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but to do so would be disrespectful to the many men and women who spilled blood in the early days of the civil rights movement. When I was a boy growing up it wasn’t unusual to hear the “n” word in public and political figures like George Wallace felt no reservation declaring their bigotry. The open hostility that allowed for nearly daily lynching in the South, and the legal justification for denying civil rights and other overt manifestations of bigotry have disappeared from public discourse. Many younger people today are at least uncomfortable with expressions of bigotry, and this is shift in attitudes is real progress. An African-American elected through a broad coalition of diverse Americans is a sign of progress.
However, it can also be said that the cultural and institutional roots of bigotry is only just beneath the surface, and there clearly is a growing resurgence of racial hatred awakening. It manifests itself in the refusal to acknowledge that voter suppression, or that the mass incarceration of black men is racial warfare. It is as subtle as the continued questioning of President Obama’s birthplace, and as blatant as the stop and frisk policy in New York City. It is as institutional as the exploding rate of poverty and as ephemeral as stereotyping in the media. America is still a racist society, born from the generation’s long genocide of slavery.
So while we may have progressed to eliminate the legal and overt manifestations of racism, we have not progressed enough to root it out of our hearts, and until we do we will remain a racist society.
But we can still cling to that dream.