Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were my heroes growing up in New York in the 1960s. My parents had taught me and my brother to embrace racial justice and treat all people with dignity and respect. As an adult, I supported liberal causes and even ran for the U.S. Congress urging that we address the root causes of poverty, insufficient health care and education in neglected communities. Yet at this moment of upheaval and protest, I have come to realize that while my generation thinks of itself as “progressive,” we have done shockingly little to stop injustice and remedy inequality in our country.
When he began studies at Middlebury College, my son made me aware of the “progress narrative” that I had come to embrace, as I frequently cited anti-discrimination laws and economic statistics to argue that America was on the right track to achieve racial equality. This narrative accepted a glacial pace of change in the face of the distress of millions of people.
Like many in my generation, I was taught to take the long view and to perceive terrible events such as the deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and so many others as “isolated incidents” that did not describe the overall picture of the Black experience in America. I viewed the police as fundamentally beneficial for society, even as some officers practiced violent and confrontational tactics. I viewed national economic growth and wealth creation in new industries as forces that would “lift all boats” and create conditions where everyone would prosper. I judged the election of a Black president as a milestone that marked the end of an era. Quite simply, I was wrong on all of these counts.
The events this spring have provided a wake-up call for people like me who misjudged the depth of injustice and the pervasive alienation felt by Black and other communities in our country. We live in a country where police violence is a daily event for Black communities, not an occasional headline in a newspaper. We live in a country where nearly 40% of prison inmates are black, often incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes. Too many city police forces view minority communities as enemies to control, rather than as citizens they are dedicated to serve. The designation of police as “peace officers” in many cities has been revealed to be both insulting and absurd.
The idealistic words of MLK and Robert Kennedy in particular still resonate in my consciousness, but 52 years have passed since their untimely deaths in 1968, and the rate of change on these issues, we belatedly realize, has been far too slow and even slipped backward in many cases. We have tolerated the militarization of police forces and adoption of brutal methods to respond to situations that would be better approached with kindness, humanity and well-placed social services. We have been focused on the wrong measures of progress and put too much faith in the passage of new laws and the rhetoric of politicians to solve fundamental inequities.
Where do we go from here? Acknowledging that my children and their peers have better answers, I hesitate to offer specific solutions. For baby boomers, simply taking a deep breath and learning more about critical issues may represent the most meaningful first step to raising our consciousness and remaking a country of which we might finally be proud. I now view the words of the charismatic leaders of the 1960s as those of prophets whose warnings were not heeded.
On June 6, 1966, Sen. Robert Kennedy delivered the Affirmation Day speech in Cape Town, South Africa, stressing the moral necessity to effect change in all nations: “We have passed laws prohibiting discrimination in education, in employment, in housing; but these laws alone cannot overcome the heritage of centuries — of broken families and stunted children, and poverty and degradation and pain … We must recognize the full human equality of all of our people — before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this, not because it is economically advantageous — although it is; not because the laws of God command it — although they do; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do.”
Kennedy would be killed two years to the day after he spoke these words. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot on April 4, 1968. Our nation awaits the fulfillment of their vision for a better society, grounded in justice, equality and peace.
An earlier version of this Op-Ed, published June 12, 2020, and corrected on June 15, 2020, incorrectly stated the date that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. It was April 4, 1968.