State of the ‘Dream’

Last week America watched President Obama provide Congress with his Constitutionally required “time to time” update on the state of the union. This week, we celebrated one of the men who made it possible for Obama to stand in that position. This is not a Martin Luther King Jr. commentary, but, his holiday provides an important annual opportunity for kids to understand the magnitude of King as a person, his influence on countless lives, past, present and future, as well as a reminder to the rest of us to check in with ourselves from time to time on the state of the “dream.” 

I am going to take a risk here. A lot of liberal commentators, like me, have an inclination to focus only on what is wrong with the state of race in America. I admit, that is my first impulse — to talk about police violence, hate-filled rhetoric toward Muslims and immigrants, our failed criminal justice system, and all the ways in which we are imperfect as a nation. Sure, the state of our union remains imperfect, but so too remains every other country, so too remains the world. So, as I reflect on King’s “dream” and the final year of America’s first black president, I cannot give an honest commentary without acknowledging that the state of race in America is strong and getting stronger. 

I am 32 years old. King was about my age, 34, when he delivered his dream at Lincoln’s footsteps. When I was introduced to King, it was in scratchy audio, and black-and-white videos. As a kid who never knew black-and-white television growing up, seeing that made it seem as though King were from ancient history. Videos of Alabama schools being forcibly integrated, dogs and fire hoses leveling crowds of people, to an elementary school kid in the ‘90s, might as well have happened back in Medieval times. Couldn’t have happened in my lifetime, or my parents’, or my grandparents’. I cannot imagine how ancient King must seem to kids today, watching his speech on an iPad. 

But King should be alive and 87 years old today — two years younger than my grandmother. He should not be an historic figure, like Lincoln, but a modern hero. 

I digress to provide the simple context to say, King isn’t ancient history, he’s modern history, and America has come a long way in a very short time. 

Now (insert the politically correct liberal commentary), just because we have made progress does not mean we are good. But instead of just venting my outrage for the crimes against Freddy Gray and Trayvon Martin, or the problems of Ferguson and Baltimore, I would like to offer a different perspective: These are unquestionable tragedies that affect countless families and communities, but America is growing up. I see the horrific cell phone and body camera videos of police shootings, and after the anger ends (well, the anger never really ends), a part of me is grateful that America can’t avoid itself any longer. For the first time in history, America gets to see — is forced to see — what black and brown communities have undoubtedly been dealing with for decades and centuries. 

If it seems like the government, media and white America doesn’t know how to react, it’s because they don’t. This is the first time they have been exposed to these types of horrors in such a profound way. Police brutality wasn’t invented after the iPhone. And as horrific as dogs and fire hoses were, it was part of our past, not our present; it was part of a movement, not Tamir Rice’s playtime in the park. 

Every time I see a new video of a black man or boy being shot and killed by police, I wonder how many innocent black lives have been lost, and how many medals have been hung on cowards instead of heroes.

It may seem like we are at a low-point in the state of race in America, but we’re not. The nightly news only shows the steps we take backward. But if you look at the grainy, black-and-white photos of the past, next to a snapshot of America today, it takes a cynic to not admit that we are living in the clearest era of King’s dream. It is the beginning of an America that can no longer stick its head in the sand and can no longer avoid the stories from “that” part of town. It is a new place where police and black lives are protected equally.

For years, much of the dialogue has been cloaked in the shield of “We need to have a conversation about race in America.” We have finally been forced beyond talking about talking, and actually being confronted with the real racial issues of America, and we are, and will continue to be, better for it.

Our dream of a perfect union will always be a dream. We will never achieve a perfect union. But, if for no other reason, moving beyond the time of willful ignorance to a time when we actively pursue perfection brings us infinitely closer to realizing our dream. The state of our dream is not perfect, but it is strong, and its best days are ahead.