Blacks must toast gains of civil rights movement

June 16, 1999|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

THE GOOD News About Black America," was the cover story of a recent issue of Newsweek magazine. The piece was a compendium of encouraging statistics -- black unemployment and unwed motherhood down, education and earnings up. And yet, the report said, this news has gone largely unacknowledged and uncelebrated by black folks.

Reminds me of the answer I generally give when someone asks me to sum up racial progress. I tell them we've not come anywhere near as far as many white people would like to believe. Yet we've come a lot further than many black people would care to admit.

And here, let us duly note the obvious: This still ain't exactly the Promised Land. Indeed, by virtually any quality of life measure you care to use, black Americans continue to trail white ones by large margins. Even now.

Yet after you've said that, then what? After you acknowledge the progress that hasn't been made, what do you do with the progress that has?

I once interviewed a black couple as they were having lunch in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Ala. They told me how things have not changed for blacks and, indeed, have become worse than they were a generation ago. Hearing those words in that place left me flabbergasted.

See, Kelly Ingram is the park where civil rights marchers put their bodies on the line before police dogs and high-pressure hoses in the spring of 1963. Back then, this couple would not have been allowed to even walk there.

So things aren't worse than they were. Indeed, in many ways, they're measurably better. Why do we -- meaning African-Americans -- sometimes have difficulty saying that?

Some of us fear that to acknowledge progress is to ease the pressure for changes that still cry out to be made. Some reason that progress itself might yet prove illusory, the advances taken away. Some people have known too much of estrangement to ever trust fully in acceptance. And some, it must be said, simply dread the loss of a convenient excuse for their own failure to strive. Meaning, of course, the all-powerful and ever-malevolent "white man."

But if there are multiple reasons why some African-Americans refuse to call advancement by name, there are also multiple penalties. We lose credibility and moral authority. Worse, we cheat ourselves and our children of things our fathers and mothers struggled that we might have. Like joy, and a sense of our own possibilities.

Maybe it's time we began looking for signs of better days.

Yes, racism remains alive and well, and it's incumbent upon black people to bear witness to the change that didn't come.

But it wouldn't hurt to also spare an occasional word on behalf of the change that did.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He will talk about his new book on father-son relationships, "Becoming Dad," at the central branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library at 6 p.m. Monday.

Pub Date: 6/16/99

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