Fifty years ago on the March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. announced his dream to the world: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Fifty years later, that world is still a dream.
According to an August Pew Research poll, 49 percent of Americans say “a lot more” needs to be done toward racial equality.
The study shows that in 2010, black men were incarcerated six times as often as white men and in 2011, median white households made roughly $27,000 more than black ones. Blacks are three times as likely to be living in poverty. And the July unemployment rate for blacks (12.6 percent) is double of that for whites (6.6 percent).
Compared to data collected from a sample of children born more than a decade after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed into legislation, these revelations aren’t surprising. After all, according to The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy reform group, one in 10 black males in their 30s are in prison.
Meanwhile, sociologist Dr. Becky Pettit’s study, “Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress,” of high school dropouts born between 1975 and 1979 shows that:
- 68 percent of blacks, compared with 28 percent of whites, had been incarcerated at some point by 2009.
- In 2009, 37 percent of blacks, compared with 12 percent of whites, were imprisoned.
- More young black dropouts are in prison or jail than have paying jobs.
- Black men are more likely to go to prison than to graduate with a four-year college degree or complete military service.
- Black dropouts are more likely to spend at least a year in prison than to get married.
- And by the time they turn 18, one in four black children will have experienced the imprisonment of a parent.
This is the world we see — one where Florida’s “stand your ground” laws protected a light-skinned Hispanic from charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter after he shot a black teen in early 2012 and didn’t protect a black woman who felt like she was in physical danger from her abusive husband.
And it’s the one we see in “Fruitvale Station,” Ryan Coogler’s empathetic debut feature-length film based on the death of Oscar Grant III, a black 22-year-old shot by a white Bay Area Rapid Transit officer.
Through Coogler’s script and direction and Rachel Morrison’s camera lens, we follow Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) over the course of 24 hours, watching his “pursuit of happyness.”
But unlike Chris Gardner‘s story (about a hardworking and homeless entrepreneur/stockbroker), “Fruitvale Station” is without its Hollywood flourishes. While Oscar may strive to provide for his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and daughter (Ariana Neal), he spent time behind the walls of the San Francisco Penitentiary. Instead of selling expensive medical equipment like Gardner did, Oscar dealt marijuana.
“Do you want me to sell dope?” Oscar, who worked at a local food market, asked his former boss after he refused to rehire him.
Certainly this illustrates the cyclical nature of one’s socioeconomic status. Unable to find a socially acceptable minimum wage job, Oscar resorts to selling drugs — which could put him back behind prison bars. Is this really the “pursuit of happiness?”
How do you answer your daughter when she asks you, “Why do you love taking your vacations more than you love being with me?”
As uncomfortable as this reality is, “Fruitvale Station” doesn’t shy away from another self-evident truth: we’re still judged by the color of our skin.
We see this when a white woman looks away nervously when a black man in jeans and a hoodie approaches her in the supermarket. We see this when police officers pull aside unarmed black men from a BART train, shooting and killing one of them.
You can’t help but think: is this what Trayvon Martin felt like when he was followed by George Zimmerman on Feb. 26, 2012?
“This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something,” Zimmerman told police. “These assholes, they always get away.” Trayvon, a black teen wearing jeans and a dark hoodie, made him uncomfortable, he said.
Even President Obama isn’t a stranger to this racial profiling: “There are very few African American men in this country who’ve never had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store… There are a very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars… There are a very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking in an elevator and having a woman clutch her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often,” he said, admitting that some of these incidents occurred to him.
While Johannes Mehserle, the BART officer who shot Oscar, was convicted for involuntary manslaughter, and sentenced for two years in prison, and the Trayvon Martin case renewed momentum toward the End Racial Profiling Act, that’s not enough.
It’s not enough when new North Carolina voting laws requiring photo identification, making it harder for blacks to vote. It’s not enough when state laws require a jury to acquit a man who shot and killed someone. It’s not enough until every man is not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
That’s the world Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of 50 years ago. And sadly, those words are as relevant today as they were on Aug. 28, 1963.
Echoing the words of Dr. King, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality… We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Words to remember, but also words worth fighting for — that self-evident and elusive truth: equality. Will dreams ever come true?