The dream and the job ahead

January 20, 1992

Had he lived to see his 63rd birthday, Martin Luther King Jr. would have found a nation still grappling with the matter of race. Some parts of the dream have flowered: The legal revolution of the past quarter century has helped many blacks achieve something closer to equal treatment under law. Today, 14 percent of the nation's black population enjoys some level of affluence, compared with only 6 percent in 1967. Blacks occupy positions of power and influence in government, the arts and, to a lesser extent, corporate America.

Yet a quarter century after the demolition of a legal system codifying white supremacy, segregation and exclusion, the goal of a truly equal society remains infinitely elusive. The stripping away of tangible legal barriers has laid bare deeply etched biases that find expression in housing and employment discrimination, in occasional acts of individual terrorism and in a lack of true contact between the races. Somewhere along the way, the white guilt that drove the moral crusade for fairness and justice has turned to anger and grievance. More and more whites are circling the wagons on affirmative action, convinced that blacks are gaining at their expense. Many now equate civil rights with favored treatment for minorities.

Integration and opportunity, what there is of it, have perversely exposed deep structural problems in mostly black urban centers. For many of those unable to flee poverty and disadvantage, the triumphs of the past quarter century have been largely evanescent. In many measures of human existence -- infant mortality, life expectancy, education, income and employment -- blacks remain disproportionately mired at the bottom. Decades of disenfranchisement, despair and desperation have rendered our inner cities breeding grounds for violence, crime and chemical escape, with blacks victimizing blacks. A mandate for massive federal intervention to renew the cities and abolish poverty has been all but shattered by the Reagan-Bush pursuit of boot-strap social policy.

Regrettably, the evolution of the civil rights movement has brought us to an uncomfortable and uncertain place. The extraordinary, euphoric crusade for liberty led by Dr. King a quarter century ago was aimed at blatant transgressions of the Constitution, especially in education, public accommodations, housing and voting. Its successes were driven, at least partly, by the simultaneous occurance of economic prosperity and activism. Today, the enemy and the mission are more difficult to discern. The overt trappings of racism have been banished in the law. Bitterness over affirmative action continues to mount as jobs -- even white collar jobs -- disappear or draw minimal pay. Civil rights is no longer perceived as a universal struggle for justice, but a special interest agenda.

The past quarter century has seen seismic shifts and often improvement in institutions and attitudes. But America still has a long way to go in living up to its creed of liberty and justice for all.

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