What Would Martin Luther King Think of the United States Today?
How Much Have Things Changed?
Martin Luther King Jr. died almost fifty years ago. A few years before an assassin cut him down, he had helped push through major legislative achievements that began the process of tearing down institutionalized racial discrimination. He did not live long enough, however, to see the long-term effects of the Civil Rights Movement. If he were to return somehow to the United States in 2016, would he be pleased with how things have turned out? Or would he be disappointed because of the many ways that our country has not changed for the better (and may be even worse)?
I have no doubt that in some very profound ways, King would be pleasantly surprised by the state of race relations in America. The current occupant of the White House would have been unimaginable when King left this earth, and President Obama is only one of many prominent African-Americans who can be found in all walks of life. Interracial marriage is more common than ever before, signs reading white and colored have not made a comeback, and perhaps most significantly, racism is by general consensus viewed as a bad thing. The community college classrooms where I teach are far more racially diverse than what was typical decades ago, and I have not yet heard any students say that they have a problem with this. American racists today can no longer get away with the kinds of blatant expressions of bigotry that were commonly accepted throughout most of American history.
That is the good news. Unfortunately, King would also see many things that are all too familiar. When you look beyond the prominent public figures and focus on average, everyday African-Americans, enormous racial disparities remain: median income, poverty rate, unemployment, high school dropout rate, college graduation rates, and, most glaringly, the makeup of the prison population. Today, the prison population is blacker (and browner) than it was in King's day. One would think that in our post-Civil Rights Movement, supposedly post-racial society, these gaps would have narrowed significantly by now. But the statistics have not apparently changed to the same degree as the official public attitudes. And every time an incident of alleged police brutality against a black person takes place, triggering racial tensions and even riots, if feels like we are back in the 1960s all over again.
It is important to note, however, that King was concerned about more than just race. He was also outspoken about issues such as wealth inequality, poor working conditions, and the Vietnam War. Given that the gap between the rich and poor has been growing for decades, labor unions are far weaker than in King's day, and people throughout the world continue to work in deplorable conditions, King would find even more to be disappointed about. He might also wonder how it is still possible that the United States is the only remaining industrial nation that does not provide basic health insurance for all. I also doubt that he would have been thrilled by American military actions since the 9/11 attacks, although he could take small consolation in the fact that far more American soldiers died in Vietnam alone than have died in the many conflicts since.
On so many levels, why has our society not come closer to fulfilling Martin Luther King's dream? As with everything else, there is not any single, simple explanation for why we still see so much racial and economic inequality. But when you consider the centuries of firmly entrenched racism that preceded the Civil Rights Movement, it should not be surprising that such glaring racial inequalities continue. It is unrealistic to think that centuries of racism can be wiped away in fifty years. The sins of past generations have been passed on to us, and perhaps more importantly, the wealth of past generations - or the lack thereof - was passed on to their children. The United States, like all societies, is a place where a person's success is largely determined by the circumstances of his or her birth.
Hopefully, fifty years from now, we will have moved a bit closer to achieving King's dream. But as the last fifty years have demonstrated, we can never become complacent and assume that things will inevitably move in a positive direction. Some of the attacks against President Obama over the past few years, events such as Ferguson, and the not so subtle racial overtones of the current presidential race indicate that we could just as easily go backward as forward. Civil Rights Movements, as King well knew, must never end.