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We're Still Marching Towards MLK's Promised Land

Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of equality in America has been deferred. It's up to us to fight to make it a reality.

Like DJ Khaled might say, they don't want you to dream. Why? Because dreams are dangerous. They challenge what is with what could be. But in the 1960s, during the Civil Rights Movement, a lot of folks dared to dream of a time when young blacks like myself could walk with dignity and live without fear as first-class American citizens. Once those in power realized that they could never stop us from dreaming, they tried to trick us into believing we had already achieved that dream.


The first time I ever really grappled with Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream was in a classroom filled with white faces. I was probably passing love notes back and forth with a caucasian crush when the teacher's creaky tape deck finally reeled into the iconic speech's climax. There, the indomitable orator talks about the future, vividly describing a new day when black kids will join hands with "little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers…"

Even as a kid, decades removed from the tumultuous era in which King first delivered that message, his sentiment gripped me. I understood that in some small way, just by sitting in that suburban classroom, I was living out a tiny part of what he had hoped for my generation.

My parents moved us from the predominantly black east side of Cleveland to the west side suburbs in the early 90s so I'd have access to a better education. When I entered that overwhelmingly white elementary school for the first time, I didn't have to face a vicious mob hocking loogies, throwing stones, or threatening to string me up and watch me strangle to death the way that Elizabeth Eckford did when she first tried to integrate Arkansas's Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Shit, I didn't even have to go in through the back door. I walked right in through the front, everyday, sometimes with my pants sagging below my waistline and my hat on backwards.

Years later, when I was 18, I registered to vote. The first time I exercised that right in a presidential election, I cast my ballot for a black man. I accomplished all of this without being intimidated by domestic terrorists like the Ku Klux Klan or their co-conspirators in law enforcement. No one asked me to take an impossible literacy test, and I didn't have to kiss some funky white man's ass so he could vouch for me. I just did it—I voted for our nation's first black president with the same degree of ease one enjoys when grabbing some take-out for dinner.


These experiences—getting the same education as upper middle-class whites, registering to vote and then being able to actually exercise that right—were the spoils of battles fought by people like King, who literally lost their lives to make it so. And I'm not alone in enjoying the fruit of those victories. A large number of young blacks in this country have been able to reach new heights by standing on the broad shoulders of their forebearers.

I see them out there doing their thing. Maybe they graduated from Yale, maybe they studied abroad for six months in Paris to work on their French, maybe they're developing a hookup app for people who work graveyard shifts, or maybe they're running for office as an independent. They're up to all types of shit—cool, elite shit with seemingly few obstacles standing between them and what King called "cashing a check." Of course, the check they're cashing isn't from a bank, but from the American republic. The rights they're enjoying are enshrined in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, those promissory notes from Uncle Sam that have historically bounced for people of color.

Long after the explicit enslavement of blacks ended in 1865, we were still hearing the political equivalent of "insufficient funds" anytime we tried to live like actual first-class citizens. To ensure those checks would cash, there were countless legislative and legal slugfests that culminated with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial segregation in public places, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited Jim Crow laws that often made blacks electorally invisible, especially in the South.


In a perfect world, after the end of Slavery and Jim Crow, you'd think that would have been the end of it. And on the surface, to those unengaged, it was. But in reality, we've quietly been floating further and further from that promised land King dreamed about. Despite the anecdotal triumphs of superlative people like Barack Obama and the landmark wins touted around the Civil Rights Movement, when you actually take an inventory of where we as a people stand in America today, you realize that there isn't that much of a difference between Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till, or the 1963 Birmingham church bombing and the 2015 Charleston church shooting.

Just take education. Although the schools are no longer explicitly segregated along racial lines, they are still separate and unequal in practice. We made great strides in the afterglow of the Civil Rights era, but since the 90s, black student attendance at mostly-white schools has been dropping steadily. According to a report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, a mere 23 percent of blacks attended majority white schools in 2011—the same percentage as in 1968. This is important because teachers at schools with a majority of minority students typically are paid less and thus lack the experience and certifications of those teaching in white schools. According to a 2012 report by the Center for American Progress, the more students of color in a school, the fewer funds spent per student. Raise the percentage of minority students in a school by 10, and the spending per student decreases by $75.


One key aspect of this is the fact that public schools in most states across the country are funded through property taxes. Historically, most blacks live in areas with lower relative property value, and thus are receiving cheaper educations. Although it was easy for me to walk into the front door of my predominantly white high school in the 90s, I was there strictly thanks to the superhuman feats performed by my parents, who cobbled together enough money to move to an area with high-enough property values to support good public schools. To make that move, they knowingly dealt with housing discrimination and acquiesced to borrowing at an incredibly high rate for their new home, despite having good credit and being gainfully-employed city police officers. To keep up with the payments, they'd go straight from the police station to part-time security gigs, working 50 to 70 hours a week, until they finally refinanced the house several years later.

This struggle that many blacks face just to get their kids a decent education is wholly un-American, and its persistence means the institutional racism leaders like King dreamed would die out remains. Most parents are not able to make the drastic moves my parents did to put me on the right track, which is probably why through my entire academic career, from elementary school in Ohio through graduate school in New York City, I have often been the only black person in the room. As an adult, working at a fancy media company, it's the same deal. And as long we continue to have a segregated and unequal education system in this country, I don't see that changing much anytime soon.


Surprisingly, voting trends in this country are almost as dispiriting as those facing schools. In King's "Dream" speech, he said that, "We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote…" Today, we shouldn't just be unsatisfied—we should be fucking furious. Despite the great progress made with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we are backsliding at such a rapid pace that it's scary to think where black participation in electoral politics might be if the trend continues. Although black youth in Mississippi don't face the same belligerent obstacles they may have in the early 20th century, the new challenges are almost more insidious because they're so low-key.

Many of these changes came after I so casually cast my vote for Barack Obama in 2008, an election that saw black voters turn out at a higher rate than whites. The developments we've seen as of late are focused on making sure that doesn't happen in 2016. Under the false specter of voter fraud, states across the country have been issuing laws that, while not explicitly racist, disproportionately impact black voters.

Voter ID laws are the signature example. They've popped up in states from Texas to Virginia, requiring that citizens show a state ID in order to vote. In practice, they represent what Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg has called—in a nod to the Jim Crow era—an "unconstitutional poll tax." This is because, according to the government's General Accounting Office (GAO), blacks don't tend to have the various forms of ID these new laws demand of would-be voters. And at the same time that these ID requirements have been popping up, states like Alabama have limited the number of places one can acquire an ID.


As in the Jim Crow era, the powers that be aren't using nooses and hoods to shut us out of electoral politics—they're leaning on bureaucratic red tape.

Democratic campaign poster from 1866 via Wikimedia Commons

Although there are activists and lawyers fighting against these changes, the greatest weapon against institutionalized racism within our voting process, the Voting Rights Act, was neutered by the Supreme Court in 2013. Before the Voting Rights Act, when citizens felt their state had a discriminatory voting policy, they'd have to mount a long-ass legal battle that would take forever to make any impact on their lives. In the meantime, that contested regulation would stay on the books. But Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act made it so that states with historically racist voting policies would have to get all of the changes to their voting policies—such as ID laws—cleared by the feds before they could go into effect, putting the onus on the states to prove that their new laws weren't racist. For all intents and purposes, we are now back at square one with this shit, with historically racist states free to enact new laws that could potentially disenfranchise blacks. And if citizens want to fight back, they have to lawyer up.

When it comes to voting, though, there's even more funky shit happening connected to our broken justice system. Mass incarceration that's accelerated since the 1980s has played a tremendous role in disenfranchising black voters. Nearly 1.4 million voting eligible black male voters will not be able to cast a ballot in 2016 because several states put restrictions on the voting rights of felons. Nine states bar felons from voting for life, while 32 prohibit felons from voting during their sentence and while they are on parole. Although we claim to be a beacon of democracy for the world, we're in the minority in regards to the way we disenfranchise convicts. Out of 45 countries surveyed by the non-profit ProCon, only three other countries ban felons from voting after they've served their prison sentences; even in Russia, you get your rights restored after you leave the big house.


As politicians on both sides of the isle continue to rethink the war on drugs, it's important to remember that one of the reasons our incarceration rate has been able to soar beyond countries like China or North Korea is that the people most impacted by our broken justice system have no voice in America's democracy.

So we're up against a wily foe—a master at deception and misdirection. We've warred with him through slavery, through Jim Crow, and now through a more covert brand of apartheid comprised of "colorblind" laws that weave white supremacy so deep into the fabric of American life, it's hard to spot them from afar. In King's "Dream" speech, he called the imperative to stand up against the oppression of his day "the fierce urgency of now." Today, we're standing at a similar precipice.

The good news is that an exciting new civil rights movement has been coalescing to meet this challenge. This is, of course, a dangerous proposition. King himself was gunned down in the midst of his fight for the dream on April 4, 1968. And just as we haven't seen the last of entrenched white supremacy in our schools and in our electoral politics, we probably haven't seen the end of violence used to silence our dreamers.

Yet in spite of the obstacles that loom ahead of us, I still believe we can reach that promised land. From the political action of Black Lives Matter to the anthems of Kendrick Lamar, we've got what we need to make sure that one day, when our kids are sitting in an elementary classroom and hear King belt "free at last, free at last" over some strange, new fangled inner-ear audio device, it's no mere aspiration—but a statement of fact.

Follow Wilbert Cooper on Twitter.