The Misremembering of ‘I Have a Dream’
When it comes to assessing the political content of the speech, the distinction between segregation and racism is crucial. To the extent that King’s words were about bringing an end to codified, legal segregation, then the dream has been realized. “Whites Only” signs have been taken down; the laws have been struck. Since 1979, Birmingham, Alabama, has had only black mayors. If simply being black—as opposed to the historical legacy of racism—was ever the sole barrier to economic, social or political advancement, that obstacle has been officially removed.
But to the extent that the speech was about ending racism, one can say with equal confidence that its realization is not even close. Black unemployment is almost double that of whites; the percentage of black children living in poverty is almost triple that of whites; black male life expectancy in Washington, DC, is lower than in the Gaza Strip; one in three black boys born in 2001 stands a lifetime risk of going to prison; more black men were disenfranchised in 2004 because they were felons than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment ostensibly secured their right to vote.
Many of the images King evoked in his dream refrain were simple—“little black boys and black girls [joining] hands with little white boys and white girls”—even if descriptions of how we might reach that promised land were intermittent and vague. (“Go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana…knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”) But the speech was clearly more about wider racism than just segregation. By fudging the distinction between the two—or by actively misinterpreting them—it is possible to cast racism as an aberration of the past, as the Supreme Court effectively did when it gutted the Voting Rights Act this past spring. Only then can the vast, enduring differences in the material position of blacks and whites be understood as the failings of individuals rather than the consequences of ongoing institutional, economic and political exclusion. Only then does the emphasis on a single line of the speech—in which King aspired to see new generations who would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”—make any sense.
This particular misreading is most glaring today in discussions of affirmative action. King was a strong proponent of taking race and ethnicity into account when making appointments for jobs and for college admissions, in order to redress historical imbalances. “It is impossible to create a formula for the future,” he wrote, “which does not take into account that our society has been doing something special against the Negro for hundreds of years.”
Yet the right has come to rely on the “content of their character” line to use King as anti-racist cover for its opposition to affirmative action. In 1986, Reagan said: “We are committed to a society in which all men and women have equal opportunities to succeed, and so we oppose the use of quotas. We want a colorblind society. A society that, in the words of Dr. King, judges people not by ‘the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’”
Such distortions in turn explain the ambivalence voiced by those like Harding and a significant element of the black intelligentsia when discussing “I Have a Dream.” It’s not the speech itself about which they are reticent, but rather the way King has been co-opted and his message corrupted. King’s elevation to a patriotic mascot praising America’s relentless and inevitable progress to better days often rankles.
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So when it comes to divining the meaning of King’s speech, there is substantial disagreement. Ironically, given its theme of racial unity, those differences are most pronounced in terms of race.
In a Gallup poll taken in August 2011, the month the King memorial was opened, a majority of blacks said they believed both that the government has a major role to play “in trying to improve the social and economic position of blacks and other minority groups” and that “new civil rights laws are needed to reduce discrimination against blacks.” The figures for whites were 19 percent and 15 percent, respectively. Conversely, over half of whites believed that civil rights for blacks had “greatly improved” in their lifetime, compared with just 29 percent of blacks. Whites were almost six times more likely than blacks to believe that Obama’s policies would “go too far…in promoting efforts to aid the black community,” while blacks were twice as likely as whites to believe they wouldn’t go far enough. Other polls show that whites are four times as likely as blacks to believe that America has achieved racial equality. In short, as the racially polarized responses to George Zimmerman’s acquittal revealed, black and white Americans have very different lived experiences. While the de jure enforcement of segregation has been banned, the de facto experience of it remains prevalent. Any journey through a US city, where widely recognized geographical boundaries separate the races, will bear this out. Blacks and whites are less likely to see the same problems, more likely to disagree on their root causes, and unlikely to agree on a remedy.
“For those who concentrate so much on that one line about ‘the color of their skin’ and ‘the content of their character,’” says Harding, “I wonder how, with the resegregation of our schools and communities, do you get to know the content of anyone’s character if you’re not willing to engage in life together with them?”
There is pretty much only one question on which the views of black and white Americans do coincide, and that is whether they believe King’s dream has been realized. Whenever this question has been asked by major pollsters over the past seven years, the discrepancy between blacks and whites has rarely topped 10 percent. If they agree about the extent to which the problems King invoked have been solved, but disagree on what they are, the inevitable conclusion is that, even as they listen to the same speech, blacks and whites hear very different things.
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