The year a gunman killed Martin Luther King Jr. it would have been hard for most people to imagine the United States having a president who was not a white man. Today is Inauguration Day for a man who is black and white and who is beginning his second term in that office.
We have changed that much since 1968 and are still changing, but we are not where our champions of peace, justice and equality would have wanted us to be by now. We still have a way to travel toward that beloved community King envisioned, and that so many Americans worked toward and so many still work for. America is always an unfinished project with lots of work for the current generation.
Today being black and white still means being black in most people’s eyes, and there are Americans right now who say Barack Obama is not their president — and even some who persist in claiming he isn’t even American.
Many people said his first election was proof of the end of racism in America, an interesting judgment considering he won less than half the white vote. (Democratic candidates haven’t won a majority of white voters since Lyndon Johnson signed civil-rights legislation in the 1960s.) Polls show that the percentage of white Americans who have a low opinion of black Americans grew during Obama’s first term. The Associated Press poll taken before November’s election found that just more than half of Americans express prejudice toward black people and toward Hispanic Americans.
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Those attitudes show up in how people are treated in every area of life. They’re reflected in how people are treated in education, the justice system, the media, in commerce and the workplace, in reactions to immigration.
The reforms won in the 1960s made strides toward closing race-based gaps. More and more jobs were opening to black Americans; racial prohibitions were removed from immigration laws, which allowed rapid growth, particularly in the number among Asian Americans. Black Americans’ college attendance rates climbed, and more black families than ever, entered the middle class.
But then in the ’70s and ’80s a backlash grew against any program that seemed to be closing those gaps — affirmative action, assistance to the poor, desegregation attempts.
We slid backward in ways that hurt most Americans. Income inequality across the entire society increased. In the late 1970s the gap between the richest Americans and everyone else began to grow rapidly and the great American middle class began to shrink. Productivity has risen 38 percent since 1995, but wages have been stagnant. Median household income has stagnated for 20 years and declined for a decade. Jobs went overseas, private-sector unions faded; Americans took on debt to maintain their lifestyles.
College, an equalizer that became the way up for generations of students from poor families, is now where many young people become mired in debt.
The Great Recession magnified the country’s economic inequality. In August, the National Urban League reported that nearly all gains made by the black middle class over the past 30 years were erased by the recession.
Our situation looks bad. It looked bad in 1968, too, and in the 1860s and in the 1930s, and right at the beginning, when the founders decided the original constitution, the Articles of Confederation, wasn’t going to work and they replaced it with the current Constitution.
I don’t know which way we’ll lurch this time, but it seems we’ve always been fortunate to have people to lead us off downward paths toward something better. Now would be a good time for that kind of leadership.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org