This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I have no recollection of the 1963 event myself, but I have good excuses for not remembering: (A) This was not my country at the time; and (B) I was in the Styrian Alps.
Well, this is my country now, and I’m bound to respect the national totems, of which King’s speech is certainly one, so don’t be looking for any ruthless deconstruction of the thing from me. I am merely going to compare King’s time with ours.
First, that was an America supremely confident in our ability to do anything. We had come out of the 1940s bursting with pride and vigor into a world where our competitor nations lie in ruins. Everything was possible! The USA was buzzing with energy, creativity, and wealth. Heck, we could even go to the moon!
Thus Martin Luther King:
…we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.
Most of us would think it in bad taste to talk like that in a time of seventeen trillion dollars of national debt and a looming entitlements overhang. And we sure won’t be going back to the moon anytime soon. These are more sober times, with lower hopes and expectations.
Second, we are a lot less religious now than we were then. King’s biblical diction, those quotes from Amos and Isaiah, would be lost on hearers nowadays. Blacks are still more religious than nonblacks, but even black leaders—even Sharpton and Jackson—don’t talk like King anymore, not outside church anyway. Barack Obama sure doesn’t.
(American friends of the older generation tell me that even at the time, educated blacks made fun of King’s rhetorical style. Those blacks were yuppie agnostics, scornful of Bible-quoting Southern rubes. A lot of them, including some senior figures in King’s entourage—notably Jack O’Dell—were members of the Communist Party.)
Third, King made it sound a lot easier than it turned out to be. He was reaching for low-hanging fruit: segregation laws, voting tests, police brutality. King’s listeners believed that once those obstacles were swept away, blacks would rise to equality with whites.
Well, the obstacles were swept away, and then some. Not only was discrimination against blacks outlawed; discrimination in their favor was legislated across major areas of American life—in college admissions and in government hiring, promotion, and contracting.
Yet the equality didn’t happen. Huge differentials in crime, academic achievement, and wealth accumulation remained. In some cases, they increased.
The best-documented crime is homicide, where there is a corpse to be accounted for: Blacks commit homicide at seven to eight times the nonblack rate, according to statistics published by Eric Holder’s Department of Justice. In academics, every measure—from NAEP to LSAT (Figure 14)—shows black mean scores a full standard deviation below the nonblack means. For median household wealth, the Census Bureau reports whites at twenty times the black level, and this gap seems to be widening.
Since the statistics can’t be denied—they are too plentiful and consistent—we deny that there has been any change in the causative factors. Black-opportunity-wise, we pretend it’s still 1963. The obstacles preventing black success have become vaporous and abstract yet somehow have kept the same height and weight. We have retreated into magical thinking, away from the large and the loud, indeed away from anything visible or audible, into a shadow world of poisonous miasmas and unseen forces, of djinns and dybbuks.
In 1963 we had No Blacks Need Apply; now we have “institutional racism.” Then we had schools segregated by law; now we have “stereotype threat.” Then we had separate drinking fountains; now we have “white privilege.” Then a black voter was kept from the polls by being asked to spell the word “paradimethylaminobenzaldehyde”; now he has to—gasp!—show a driver’s license. Then we had Sheriff Rainey; now we have “hate.”
Our intellectual elites, who would scoff at astrology or witchcraft, all subscribe to this essentially magical style of thinking. Thus that very elite magazine The Economist, August 24th issue:
Discrimination has not vanished: the recent decision in New York to outlaw stop-and-frisk searches reflects the fact that in many places the police remain far more likely to suspect and harass innocent blacks. Voter-ID laws, while no doubt rooted in partisan rather than explicitly racial motives, still place a far heavier burden on minority voters than on white ones.
Never mind that New York City’s impeccably liberal Mayor Michael Bloomberg has argued, with supporting numbers, that whites are overrepresented in stop-and-frisks. Never mind that nobody can explain how it is a “far heavier burden” on a black than on a nonblack to produce ID at a polling station.
This retreat into magic horrifies me more than any particular atrocity. It is an appeal from civilization to barbarism, a rejection of all the hard-won understandings of these past 400 years. Most horrifying, most shameful of all, our highest seats of learning are approving this nonsense, this gibberish of savages.
Ah, but if we were to drop the magic we would find ourselves face to naked face with nature, which ordains all sorts of terrible things. She ordains earthquakes, plagues, mass extinctions, and the divergence of separated breeding populations. We’d prefer that these horrors didn’t apply to our precious selves; but alas, nature couldn’t care less what we prefer. Best cling to the magic, then.
Martin Luther King, in that pious America of two generations ago, could rest his hopes on a God-ordained equality in potential of all human populations, needing only a field cleared of gross obstacles to come fully into view.
We look at those stubborn statistics, thinking of the decades of upheaval and the trillions of dollars spent, and wonder.