Clinging to Infinite Hope

Though MLK’s “Dream” continues to inspire us, for millions of Americans it’s still a dream deferred. Nevertheless, we hang on to its truth.

In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed: “I have a dream that my four little 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.” Black History Month is one of the times of year that we, as Americans, ask ourselves how close are we to achieving this ideal espoused by Dr. King. How are we doing? Do we live in a country that has transcended the brutally ugly — and often violent — racism that has in many ways defined our country during much of its history?

It is tempting to answer “yes,” and to highlight, as evidence, many of the achievements and gains over the last several decades, including the election of that “skinny kid with a funny name” to the White House. Yet the sad reality remains that even more than 45 years after Dr. King’s speech, far too many people living in this country are still defined not by their character or abilities, but by their racial and ethnic background.

A few recent statistics tell the story:

A 2009 study found that 32 percent of Latinos said that they, a family member, or a close friend was discriminated against in the past five years because of their racial or ethnic background. With the passage of Arizona’s new immigration law, SB 1070, and similar measures, that number has likely increased in recent months.

A 2005 Gallup poll revealed that 31 percent of Asian Americans and 26 percent of blacks reported experiencing an incident of discrimination while at work during the previous 12 months.

One national survey reported that a majority of Latinos do not have confidence that they will be treated fairly by police officers. That same survey found that nearly two-thirds of blacks (as opposed to approximately one-quarter of whites) do not believe that local police officers treat blacks and whites equally.

Recent unemployment rates strongly indicate that the color of people’s skin still plays a role in the job market. In the fall of 2010, when the unemployment rate was 8.7 percent for whites, it was 12.4 percent for Latinos, and 16.1 percent for blacks. A recent study found that nearly 40 percent of previously employed black New Yorkers were unemployed for more than a year during the recession. That same number is 24 percent for whites.

These discomforting statistics should not cause us to lose faith in the ideal that Dr. King espoused on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial decades ago. Rather, they should serve as a reminder that despite the progress that has been made, Dr. King’s dream has not yet been realized for millions of Americans. They also should serve as a challenge: that we use events like Black History Month and last month’s MLK Day not merely to reflect on the achievements of a race of people and their slain hero, but that we also take them as an opportunity to address the inequalities and discriminations that still permeate our society.

And that is a challenge that people of faith are particularly capable of meeting. After all, it was Dr. King’s faith that gave him the courage to stand in the face of deeply entrenched racism and demand justice. It was faith that allowed individuals like Fannie Lou Hamer to persevere when all outward signs probably told them to stop. It was faith that allowed King, Hamer, and others to understand the essential truth that while “we must accept finite disappointment,” we must “never lose infinite hope.”

This article originally appeared at the God’s Politics blog of Sojourners.

Our Summertime Blues

As unemployment grows, partisanship deepens, and war lingers on, things certainly don’t look as hopeful as they did 20 months ago when Barack Obama took office. But there’s still hope. We just need to remember where to look for it.

Remember January 2009? That month, the country witnessed the historic inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th president of the United States of America. “The skinny kid with a funny name” upended the political establishment, running on a campaign of hope and change. So many of us expected that his administration would usher in a new, golden era of progressive policy and thought in Washington. No more politics as usual, we all agreed. Some heralded the start of a new, “post-racial” era in American life. It was hard for even the most jaded pessimist not to get suckered in.

Fast-forward to the present: summer 2010. While there have been some landmark victories and accomplishments, they have been overshadowed by the plethora of watered-down compromises and outright defeats. Politics has indeed departed from its usual course, but only in that the level of partisan bickering seems to have reached an all-time high. Plus there’s rampant unemployment; the massive national deficit and the accompanying looming specter of what that means for our future; and a war effort that is only getting worse with no easy exit strategy. On top of that all, along came the Shirley Sherrod incident, eradicating any holdouts still desperately grasping onto the myth of a “post-racial” America. Now the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy threatens to pull us further apart as a nation.

And it appears despair is contagious, because progressives aren’t the only ones suffering the doldrums. Americans of all ideological backgrounds and partisan bents seem to be in dour moods. A majority of people believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. Politicians from both sides of the aisle (and even those in the middle), are quaking in their boots as the anti-incumbent, anti-Washington sentiment has swept the nation. It’s simply a hard time to be an optimist.

For the average citizen, it is tempting for us to bury our heads in the sand. To lament the sad state of affairs that has developed and to promise that we have learned our lesson. We won’t get involved, we say. After all, what’s the point? Nothing will change; nothing ever changes. Besides, aren’t our own lives — the stresses and pressures of day-to-day living — complicated enough?

It is in times like these that we should remember Paul’s exhortation to the Galatians. He encourages them to be persistent in their efforts and endeavors, writing: “Let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Galatians 6:9).

Just as Paul urged them to persevere in their efforts despite the negativity around them, so too must we not take our hands from the plow despite what we see or what the pundits say. There is simply too much important work to be done. Immigration reform. Revamping our nation’s outdated and damaging environmental policies. Reforming our schools. Restoring the livelihoods and habitats destroyed by the black, oily trail along the Gulf Coast. Our country can’t afford for people of good conscience to abandon their advocacy on these issues.

While we have been suffering through a summer (and perhaps a spring and winter) of depressing news and bleak outlooks, we must remember that a new season is just around the corner. And, lest we forget, autumn is harvest time.