Wednesday is the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and everyone seems to be asking, “Are we there yet?”
If by there we mean that now we all judge the people we meet by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin, the answer is clearly “no.” We aren’t there yet, but from my 66-year perspective, we’ve come a mighty long way.
In 1963, when around 700,000 heard Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I was a sixteen year old white boy in Manitowoc, Wisc. who had never even met a black person. The only black folk whom I had seen fairly close up were Henry Aaron—because our Little League team would always sit in the right field bleachers at Milwaukee’s old County Stadium—and the guy who sat on the bar in the dunk tank at the county fair who would insult the middle aged white guys passing by so they paid for three baseballs to throw at the target alongside the tank.
Now some of my best friends, to use a cliché, are black. One marched at Selma and became a vice-president at ATT. One is a southern gentleman whose name is on the Wall of Fame at Stax Records in Memphis. One is the CEO of Circle Family Health Care. One was born in Kenya and, until recently, worked in a high level job for the MacArthur Foundation.
We HAVE come a long way.
Fifty years ago Dr. King said he had a dream that “one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” and that his “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.”
Now, half a century later, when I go to the pool in the afternoon and watch a little white girl walking hand in hand with a little black girl into the water; when I watch the young adults who do the lifeguarding or staff the day camps working so comfortably with their peers of all shades of color.
Forest Park is truly a diverse town, where residents of many races walk side by side on Madison Street.
I think, “This might not mean that we’re in a post-racial society yet, but. . . .”
We REALLY HAVE come a long way.
I think we don’t judge as much as we used to by skin color, but I also see that instead of judging people by their character, we now judge them by the color of their politics.
Herman Cain, for example, was an anomaly—a black Republican—but he was a celebrity among many conservatives in part because of the color of his skin. There just weren’t that many, and there still aren’t, folks whose skin was black and politics were red. What Republicans cared most about was that he articulately promoted the conservative agenda.
Bill Clinton is another example. In a 1998 New Yorker article, Toni Morrison called Bill Clinton America’s first black president. “… White skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.”
Morrison’s comment had nothing to do with Clinton’s skin color and everything to do with his world view and life style. Bill Bishop wrote a book in 2008 entitled The Big Sort, Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart in which he cites a mountain of data showing how Americans are voluntarily moving into communities and churches and political parties in which everyone thinks the same, has the same worldview, views life through the same cultural lenses.
He writes, “As people seek out the social settings they prefer—as they choose the group that makes them feel the most comfortable—the nation grows more politically segregated—and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups. We all live with the results: balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible; a growing intolerance for political differences that has made national consensus impossible. . . .”
My addendum to King’s speech therefore is, “I have a dream that my little granddaughter will one day be judged not by the color of her party but by the content of her character.”