Fifty years ago this month, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He looked forward to a world in which people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character—a world in which we are all truly free at last. He could have reasonably hoped we would be closer to fulfilling his dream by now.
Soon after King’s historic speech on August 28, 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 addressed the many injustices of countless state and local Jim Crow laws. In the years since, blacks have served as mayors of major US cities, Supreme Court justices, Secretaries of State—and of course, in 2008, Barack Obama became US President, something that would have been inconceivable in King’s day. African Americans have also narrowed the racial income gap somewhat. Black men in 1940 earned just 50% of what white men earned; that figure has climbed to roughly 75%.
The picture north of the border is similar: Blacks have been elected to our provincial and federal legislatures and, in 2005, Michaëlle Jean became the first black Governor General of Canada. Yet, black men in Canada earn roughly two thirds what white men earn, and higher unemployment rates for blacks (9 percent compared to 4 percent for whites in the US in 2008) undermine this progress.
And why does the earnings gap persist? The education gap may offer a partial explanation. In 2008, a third of white adults in the US had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to only one in five black adults. But then, what explains the education gap?
A Promissory Note
As he addressed the crowd of thousands gathered in the Washington Mall, King spoke of the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as a promissory note, one on which America had defaulted, since not all of her citizens were yet guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Clearly some funds have yet to clear.
One reason for the post-secondary education gap is the dismal state of the US public school system, which disproportionately hurts African Americans. For example, according to a recent New York Times report, eight of the nine school districts in the St. Louis area that are predominantly white scored 14 out of 14 on Missouri’s performance scale, while the six predominantly black districts scored an average of 7. School segregation persists in the rest of the country as well, with three quarters of black students attending schools with largely minority student populations.
And of course, there is the drug war which, whatever else you might think of it, foments racism against blacks due to racist enforcement practices. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, “African Americans comprise 14% of regular drug users, but are 37% of those arrested for drug offenses.” The mass criminalization of young black men has left many a fatherless home in its wake. In Canada, although we at least fight the drug war with less zeal, nine percent of the federal prison population is black, whereas only three percent of Canadians are black—roughly the same level of over-representation found in the United States.
Sometimes, the implicit racism of the justice system is made explicit. Duane Buck, a black man, was convicted of murder in the state of Texas in 1997 and sentenced to die. Astoundingly, the prosecutor in this case elicited testimony from a psychologist who argued that the mere fact of Buck’s race increased his “future dangerousness,” a prerequisite for a death sentence in Texas. While murderers surely deserve to be punished, race must not enter into the calculation of their punishment. Buck has been granted a temporary stay of execution, but has yet to receive a new, racially-neutral sentencing hearing.
This is Our Hope
King was cut down in his prime before the 1960s were over. Were he still alive today, an 84-year-old voice of conscience, some of the gains blacks have registered would cheer him, while some remaining indignities would test his spirit.
Harking back to the Emancipation Proclamation, King noted in 1963 that “one hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” That sentiment still rings true another fifty years on, but quieter with each passing year—in no small part due to a man who had a dream.
King said he would not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Let us, with him, eschew both bitterness and despair, and focus instead on the important, difficult work of securing dignity for all. On this anniversary, let’s look forward with hope and determination, and not be satisfied until the day when freedom truly rings from every mountainside.
Bradley Doucet is a Montreal writer and the English Editor of Le Québécois Libre, a bilingual web magazine promoting individual liberty, free markets, and voluntary cooperation. He is also a regular contributor to The New Individualist, an Objectivist magazine published by The Atlas Society. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.