Have things really changed?
The question brims with urgency and fear and expectation. Urgency because this moment demands it. Fear because our nation has trod this path before, and turned back. Expectation because, well, things feel different this time.
It’s a question we all should ask if we care about the future of our country.
It is not a new question for black Americans. It’s the one we asked throughout the 1860s, with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and ratifying of the 13th and 14th amendments.
We asked it in 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled that separate was inferior, not equal, and again a decade later with the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.
We asked it in 2008 and 2012, with the election and re-election of Barack Obama. And we ask it again today.
The question is a refrain of hope. Without that hope, black Americans would have taken up arms against the state long ago. We would be in perpetual rebellion.
Instead, black people have fought in this nation’s wars, reimagined its language and culture, reshaped its politics and mores, and embraced “and justice for all” as their anthem. We’ve insisted that America live up to its ideals.
A few years ago, I kept hearing, from various quarters, “Do black people believe in the American Dream?” These writers and commentators weren’t asking whether black people think they can attain the dream, which is a fair question. They were asking whether black people are fellow Americans.
They apparently had never listened closely to Martin Luther King Jr.‘s “I Have A Dream” speech. As he spoke of an America where one day “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down at the table of brotherhood,” he reminded his audience that his vision was already embedded in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
“It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream,” he said. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
Thirty years ago, when “African American” came into vogue, critics assailed it as divisive. Conservatives and liberals alike decried it as promoting a nation of “hyphenated Americans.”
They missed the point.
It was, in fact, a miraculous moment, the climax of a journey for a people whom the law had once labeled chattel. They had gone from colored to Negro to black to African American. The “African” spoke of Otherness, and that drew the most attention. What critics missed was that black people were for the first time claiming our Americanness. This land, we were saying, is home.
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African Americans have been unflinchingly loyal to this nation, holding it to the highest standards. We’ve suffered the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” to quote George W. Bush, but have refused to return the favor. Black people will not let America flee from its potential and its promise. It is the ultimate act of patriotism.
This is why African Americans reject armed insurgency. We know that the United States, for all its faults and pathologies, is our country and we cannot destroy it. We have woven ourselves into this nation’s identity, and there’s no turning back. For better or worse, our destiny is America’s destiny.
Until recently, some whites did not believe this. They believed black people were expendable.
And yet, throughout U.S. history, progress has come only when white Americans accepted black people not just as fellow humans but as compatriots.
It happened in the 1800s, when white abolitionists decided that a country that enslaved its people was more savage than those in bondage. It happened again in the 1960s, when tens of thousands of whites joined the civil rights movement, which shattered legal segregation.
In his momentous speech, King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of 250,000 blacks and whites.
“The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust all white people,‘' he said, “for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize their destiny is tied up with our destiny.”
“They have come to realize,” he added, " that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”
And in recent weeks, we have seen it again. Unlike the nascent years of Black Lives Matter, today’s protests stand out as multigenerational and multihued, with white (and Latino and Asian) Americans showing solidarity not only in big-city marches but also in suburbs and small towns.
Beyond protests, white Americans are asking questions and educating themselves—with books, webinars, documentaries—as they seek to understand systemic injustice. They are learning that racism corrodes the soul of both the oppressed and the oppressor.
Maybe now they will see the racial tint of our country’s most acute problems, such as police brutality, which King called out twice in his 17-minute speech.
Maybe now they will see its victims as fellow Americans.
After all, Rayshard Brooks, killed by Atlanta police earlier this month, just wanted a mentor and a second chance. Breonna Taylor, shot to death by cops in Louisville, was an EMT whose mom says she planned “on becoming a nurse and buying a house and then starting a family.” And George Floyd reportedly once hoped to become a Supreme Court justice.
They were all American dreamers.
Have things really changed?
Monuments and statues have fallen; corporations have buried some racist brands; organizations have recommitted themselves to diversity in hiring; and laws are pending.
Does all this end here, or will we usher in a new era of progress? Will we turn back, or does all this herald a fresh start for justice in our generation?
Only time will tell. The good news is that, for now, we all seem invested in the answer.
Stephen Buckley is a former managing editor of the St. Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times, and former dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Times.