I Have a Dream, 54 years later

Today is MLK Jr. day, and thanks to the ice storm, everyone in my house had a day off from school. (Side bar: I'm disenchanted with our town's main school district that serves 9,000 diverse students and my community college system that doesn't honor MLK Jr. day as a federal holiday.) So, we listened to Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech as a family. I've listened to the speech and read and taught Dr. King's writings many times, but today the speech came alive for me in a way it hadn't before. There were a few sections in particular that really jumped out at me, so for my daily writing, I decided to pull these from the speech and then write about them:
"I have a dream that [...] one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today."
My family looks like a picture of racial progress: two white parents, a brown son, and a black daughter. This fact is not lost on me. While we listened to a part of the speech today, my daughter stood by my side, holding my hand. Her dark brown hand rested comfortably in my white hand, and my eyes filled with tears. The fact that my family can even exist comfortably is evidence of progress, but as Dr. King said in 1963, there is still work to be done.

"This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism."
The same message applies in 2017. While we have certainly made progress in race relations, our country now feels more racially divided than it has in the last thirty years. The news headlines whisper stories of racism, and I see this played out in my communities. Our state's major cities like Omaha, Lincoln, and Grand Island are divided into neighborhoods by race. You can almost circle certain areas of each city and identify which group of people lives in each area. Of course, this isn't mutually exclusive, and there is racial crossover in all neighborhoods, but our cities remain racially divided.

In my central Nebraska town, there is a fair amount of diversity. The largest demographics are comprised of Hispanics, caucasians, and a smattering of African immigrants and refugees. Despite this diversity, I still hear white folks lament about the growing number of Spanish speakers in our community. They say ignorant things like, "If they don't want to learn English, they should go back where they came from" as if learning another language is as easy as buying a sack of potatoes at a grocery store. My daughter came home from school the other day and explained very matter of factly how one boy made fun of her dark skin color. These are explicit displays of racism that don't include examples of microaggressions.

Microaggressions like near strangers touching my daughter's hair in public...without asking. People staring at our family as if we are foreigners from another world and then telling me of their one black friend or relative like that gives us some sort of common ground on which to stand. Comments like, "Look at her beautiful dark skin!" Or questions like, "Where'd you get her?" likening her to an item picked up off a shelf. Responding to the Black Lives Matter movement with the phrase All Lives Matter. And my favorite microaggression: I don't see color.

And then there's the silence towards matters of race. I can't figure out if I should categorize this as explicit racism or microaggressions, but this silence is what concerns frightens me the most. Reluctant to engage in tough conversations, people fly by news articles, current events, or discussions about race as if ignoring the matter will make it go away. All this does is perpetuate racism. We must engage in hard topics, meet them head on at our dinner tables and in our sanctuaries and classrooms and places of business if we want racism to be diminished. A high school teacher once told me, "silence is consent." To be fair, this statement is certainly problematic, but I truly believe that silence in the face of racism is acceptance of racism.
"It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. [...] Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual."
In 2017 there is still urgency in Dr. King's movement. His work is not finished. We can't watch footage of protests in Baltimore and Charlotte and Baton Rouge and New York and then return to business as usual. Racism is alive and well in our society, and we would do well to acknowledge it and then take steps to alleviate it.

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