50 years after MLK’s iconic ‘Dream’ speech, many still awaiting racism’s retreat
President Barack Obama is often referred to on social media by the N-word. Some white college students still dress in blackface at Halloween and many black parents say that well into the 21st century, they still feel they must give their kids “the talk” about how to avoid raising the suspicions of police or others in authority.
Last year was marked by the shooting death of black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin as the youngster walked to his father’s home. And in North Texas, authorities in Lewisville say race may have been a factor in the separate shootings — one fatally — this month of two black men. Police arrested an Asian man, who said the victims looked “suspicious” to him.
This comes 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington and the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas and 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. These incidents also occurred after the election of America’s first black president, who on Monday — while much of the nation pauses to celebrate the King holiday — will be publicly inaugurated into his second term.
Despite that historic achievement and many other notable gains by black Americans, some historians, sociologists and others lament that race and racism remain immovable and odious stigmas in this country. And it has them questioning whether King’s 1963 vision of an America where his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” will ever become reality.
“On the surface people talk about the dream being fulfilled,” said Julianne Malveaux, a political commentator and economist. “But go just below the surface and you’ll see that’s not true at all.”
Malveaux noted that there are still huge disparities between blacks and whites economically, educationally and in other areas. She said she believes racism has played, and will continue to play, a large role in those discrepancies.
“Race is America’s sticking point,” said Malveaux, a former president of Bennett College for Women. “Nobody wants to deal with it, but it is what it is. Both black and white people are uncomfortable with it, and until both sides can become comfortable dealing with it, nothing will change.”
When Obama addressed the families of the Connecticut school shooting victims, he did so on a Sunday night. His speech briefly interrupted the broadcast of the football game between the New England Patriots and the San Francisco 49ers, and many viewers took to social media to spew hate-filled vitriol about it.
“Take that n—– off the tv, we want to watch football!” University of North Alabama football player Bradley Patterson wrote from his Twitter account. Patterson, a walk-on, was subsequently dismissed from the team for his post. He later apologized, stating that he was not a racist.
He was far from alone — that night or in previous online discussions about the president. On the night Obama was re-elected, social media exploded with a barrage of racial epithets about him, including this angry Facebook post from a 22-year-old California woman.
“Another 4 years of this n—–,” Denise Helms wrote. “Maybe he will get assassinated this term.”
In a subsequent interview with a Sacramento television station, Helms acknowledged that wanting the president killed was “kind of harsh,” but she added that “if it was to happen, I don’t think I’d care one bit.” She eventually deactivated her Facebook page, but not before using it to deny being a racist.
“Apparently a lot of people in Sacramento think I’m crazy and racist,” Helms wrote in a follow-up post. “WOW is all I got to say!! I’m not racist and I’m not crazy. just simply stating my opinion.!!!”
The aggressive nature of such missives has raised the concerns of many cultural observers who say Obama’s election in 2008 turned up the volume levels of racial hatred.
Marvin Dulaney, chair of the history department at the University of Texas at Arlington, said many in the country are suffering from what he calls the “painful demise of white supremacy.” Dulaney said he believes that many, if not most, of the outspoken racists in the country today feel empowered by leaders in Washington who stubbornly oppose the president.
“Barack Obama’s election may have spurred this thought among some whites that they’re losing status in American society,” Dulaney said. “His election may have happened too soon, before some whites could adjust to it.”
“They cannot accept the fact that a black man is leading the country,” added Dulaney, who acknowledged that he didn’t initially back Obama and was “absolutely shocked” at his election. “To have a black man as president, it upsets everything they have come to believe in,” he said.
Jim Downs, associate professor of history at Connecticut College, said he also sees virulent racism in the country. But he said that type of behavior might be easier to address than the hidden forms of racism that are not readily apparent or ignored.
Downs said that in popular movies blacks are still often portrayed in subservient or inferior roles that he said perpetuate the stereotype that they shouldn’t aspire to higher, more intellectually demanding positions. Even at the college level, he said, he still encounters students from inner-city New York who don’t believe that they can get jobs in fields such as medicine, law or engineering.
“We’re living in an era based on Jim Crow segregation,” said Downs, who specializes in African-American studies. “Those economic problems of a hundred years ago are still weighing us down today. So let’s change the terms of the debate. We’re talking about politics … but you have black mothers in New York who can’t get a flu shot for their kids because pharmacies in black areas won’t provide them.
“It’s hard for you to talk about whether King’s dream is a reality yet when you’re just worried about whether your kids can even survive from day to day,” he said.
Brenda Wall, a Dallas psychologist and ordained minister, has witnessed the racism of late herself and said she’s very much aware that, 45 years after King was assassinated, America still has not overcome.
Yet she remains hopeful that the country is headed in the right direction and will eventually achieve King’s dream of racial equality. But she said the struggle will not be easy.
“Absolutely, it’s realistic. Dr. Martin Luther King did not die in vain,” Wall said. “The work of President Obama is not in vain. It has been very harsh, the racism in this country has been very harsh. Enslavement and captivity has been very harsh.
“But faith is stronger than fear, and the kind of work we’re doing continues to move forward,” she said. “We will see the peace and the justice because the work goes forward.”
Wall said that one problem that many blacks and whites fell prey to was a false belief after Obama’s election to his first term that America had become a post-racial society, where the color of a person’s skin had no bearing on what they could achieve.
“They thought … that we had arrived, but we have not arrived,” Wall said. “The struggle for us is to be anchored in truth and reality and not in materialism.”
Dulaney, though, is skeptical. He said that he believes the current divisive racial climate will improve only after Obama leaves office and even then, things will only “go back to normal and we’ll know racism exists but it will be hidden.”
Wall fights that notion, however, and said that for her, King’s dream is well within view.
“I hope you don’t think evil is stronger than truth,” she said. “I hope you don’t think that a racist is stronger than we are. It has been a horrible experience for 400 years but let’s … look to the future. Our work is not complete, but we will win.”