In January 1993, my 10-year-old self stood humbly on the stage in my school’s auditorium as a medal was placed around my neck. I was the 5th grade recipient of the Keeping the Dream Alive award (presumably for being a good student and a bit of a teacher’s pet), and I received the medal during my honors magnet school’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day assembly. Looking out into that auditorium filled with a racially and socioeconomically diverse group of high-achieving students, I naively saw the fulfillment of MLK’s dream of a cohesive America, and had even brighter hopes for the future.
Fast-forward 22 years to 2015 and that once-distant, slightly ominous “future,” and I’m now a wife and mother, living in a relatively affluent New Jersey suburb known for being a melting pot. The most powerful man in the world is the same hue as me.
But sadly, as much as some things have changed, now that I’m a generation removed from that moment of feeling that “the dream” had been fulfilled, I’ve actually become more skeptical that this country will ever meet or exceed the full measure of Dr. King’s expectations. Rather, we seem to alternate between moments of dancing almost asymptotically toward this goal, then drifting further away.
Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown aside, less overt and more nuanced evidence of America’s lack of progress on issues of racial justice abounds:
Federal civil rights officials have recently had to intervene to improve minority access to the very same Buffalo, NY magnet school system I once saw as a paragon of diversity.
It’s apparently acceptable to stereotype a powerful, passionate woman of color—the type of woman I hope my infant daughter will someday be—as an “Angry Black Woman.”
Our two-term president, who has led our country out of economic ruin and brought unemployment to its lowest rate since 2008, is still being criticized by a group of people who are dubious about his place of birth. Has any other president been subject to such insistent scrutiny?
Current students at my alma mater, Harvard College, initiated the “I, too, am Harvard” campaign to highlight the racial isolation they feel as black students within the school’s ivy-laden gates. It ultimately started a viral avalanche of similar content from students across the country.
I shudder at the thought that the progress resulting from the vision and hard work of Dr. King and others has not only stalled but regressed. What will my child think of her country at age 10? At 32? And what will America think of her?
I share these sentiments not out of pessimism, nor because I am an “angry black woman,” but to discourage the naive complacency of those who believe that, overzealous cops aside, we now live in a “post-racial America.”
Until we can unanimously accept that America’s race problem has not evaporated, but instead has in some ways become even more deeply entrenched in our culture and collective psyche, we cannot hope to move beyond it. It’s up to all of us to make sure the civil rights heroes who came before did not fight and die in vain.