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The Color Line: Why Whites and Blacks Measure Black Progress Differently

Perhaps the only thing certain about race relations in America today is that whites and blacks sharply disagree about how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. Whites tend to believe that race relations have never been better and we have largely eliminated racism from mainstream American life. To most blacks, anyone making such a claim doesn’t know what it’s like to be black.

The sources for this disagreement are many, but among the most important may be the most unlikely: the great color-blind dream Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., articulated nearly four decades ago. Whites see the dream one way, and blacks another.

Like the double helix of a DNA molecule, Dr. King’s dream for America was made of two interwoven strands: desegregation and integration. To King, desegregation would tackle our laws, norms, and public behaviors, while integration would wrestle with our very personal and private choices – the matters of heart, home, neighborhood, and community.

A desegregated America would eliminate all discriminatory laws and official barriers to full participation in American life; an integrated America would lead to what King called the “beloved community” in which skin color would become incidental rather than influential, descriptive rather than defining.

The problem today is that Americans tend to confuse the two parts of the dream. So whites see our nation’s steady though uneven progress toward desegregation as proof we are integrating, while blacks see our failure to achieve anything close to integration as evidence that the rest of our racial progress is built on hype if not illusion.

Until we unravel these two parts of King’s dream and take a cold and honest look at how America is fulfilling each of them, blacks and whites will continue to misunderstand each other and race relations will remain in the stalemate that characterizes them today.

Were Dr. King alive today, it would be hard for him not to acknowledge that America has changed in deep and profound ways. He would see nearly 9,000 blacks elected to public office, and in the South he would see what was once thought unimaginable – black police chiefs, county commissioners, mayors, state legislators, and members of Congress.

He would see a black population that was nearly illiterate half a century ago completing high school at nearly the same rate as whites. He would see black women, a third of whom worked as domestics 40 years before, now constituting ten percent of all female professionals, technical workers, and managers – and closing the earnings gap with white women. In some communities he would see the average black family earning as much as or more than whites living nearby.

Dr. King also would see overt bigotry pushed to the margins of American life, racial demagoguery in politics no longer humored or tolerated, and political parties symbolically – if not in fact – embracing inclusion. He would see a legal system that once enforced discrimination now being used to root out discrimination.

He also would see white children idolizing black athletes like Michael Jordan, white adults admiring black celebrities like Bill Cosby, white women reading black authors recommended by Oprah Winfrey, and white voters saying they would consider a black man, General Colin Powell, for President. And as a black man, Dr. King would no longer have to fear the lynch mob when talking to or looking at a white woman.

Of course, Dr. King also would see that millions of blacks continue to fall short of the American Dream, that blacks compared to whites are disproportionately poor and unemployed, that a black face continues to create suspicion in the eyes of many police, that blacks still make up only a tiny percentage of elected officials, and that a small but visible black urban underclass remains socially, economically, and psychologically isolated from the rest of society.

But it would be hard for him not to conclude that the desegregation genie he unleashed a generation ago is not working its way through American society, however slowly or haltingly. Blacks today may still be disproportionately poor, but the great American success story of the last 30 years is the rise of the black middle class, and black gains in jobs, income, and education are real – not just relative – compared to whites. Today black Americans are like all other Americans – predominantly middle class in status and aspiration, and enjoying economic and educational mobility unmatched in history.

So why do so many blacks – even successful blacks – remain wary and pessimistic? The answer is that King’s other goal, integration, remains for most blacks a far-off distant dream.

When southern black marchers held up signs saying “I AM A MAN” 35 years ago, their words spoke less to passing civil rights laws than to the very human hope that one day they will be looked at and treated with the same dignity and respect accorded any other man, regardless of skin color. To be judged by the content of one’s character, to interact with others free and unfettered by the burden of stereotype and race, to be accepted or rejected on the basis of who they are rather than what they look like is the driving force behind integration.

Yet the reality today is that even the most successful blacks – people who do everything America has asked of them – still find that whites don’t want them nearby. It’s not the same type of massive white flight that took place in the 1950s and 1960s, when “For Sale” signs sprouted like weeds the moment a black family bought a house on the block. It’s a more gradual and subtle process today.

Usually, when the first black family moves into the neighborhood these days, most whites welcome them. But a small number of whites feel uncomfortable enough to move out. More black families, thinking that the neighborhood could nicely integrate, begin to move in. But as each black family moves in, more and more white families reach their discomfort threshold until only a few whites remain in what has become a predominantly black neighborhood.

Prince George’s County was 85 percent white in 1970 but just 31 percent white today, even though it was the first American county where income and education levels rose as the area turned majority black. In Matteson, Illinois, a well-appointed town of 12,800 near Chicago, the black population rose from 12 percent in 1980 to nearly 60 percent today. The blacks moving in are professionals, the town’s median income rose by 73 percent in the 1980s, crime has not increased, schools scores haven’t changed, and home prices continue to rise. Yet whites move out, saying they simply want a nice place to raise their kids.

There are also clear indications that other minorities, particularly Hispanics and Asians, are finding a warmer welcome among whites than blacks ever had. An Hispanic or Asian with a third grade education is more likely to live among whites than a black with a Ph.D., and the current intermarriage rate for native born Hispanics and Asians who marry is, respectively, 35 and 50 percent, compared with 6 percent for blacks. Like generations before, Hispanics and Asians are assimilating in ways that blacks have never been able to integrate.

We should not underestimate the corrosive power of the message white America sends to blacks through white flight: yes, we want you to succeed and yes, we want you to have equal rights, but we just don’t want you too close. To successful and middle-class blacks, economic progress and status, while important, are still no substitutes for respect, acceptance and dignity.

Indeed the great irony of the integration ideal is that the search to transcend race is increasingly manifested among blacks in the desire, whenever possible, to be apart from whites. As black Yale Law School professor Harlon L. Dalton put it in his book Racial Healing, “I felt safer and more comfortable” among black prison inmates “than I do in the faculty lounge at Yale.”

Today we see integration’s failure in almost every part of American life. Most whites flee from racially mixed schools, and when black and white students attend the same schools they usually remain socially separated, sitting at different lunchroom tables, participating in different activities, and even using different bathrooms. Increasingly white and black kids gravitate to different sports – blacks to basketball and football, whites to soccer, baseball, hockey, swimming and tennis.

Social clubs, nightlife, entertainment, barbershops, hairdressers and even vacations are often determined by race. Today blacks and whites follow such different media that they rarely share more than one of their top 20 television shows in common – and that’s usually Monday Night Football. Popular shows for whites, such as Friends and Frasier, rank near the bottom for blacks, while few whites will ever watch The Steve Harvey Show, which tops the charts for blacks. On radio, whites listen to country and classic rock, while blacks turn the dial to urban contemporary and jazz.

Martin Luther King, Jr., knew that desegregation would make integration look easy. He knew it would be possible to desegregate America without integrating its people – for blacks and whites to attend the same schools without ever learning about each other or becoming friends, or for blacks and whites to work for the same employer without mixing on or off the job.

We Americans – black and white – should applaud ourselves for the progress we have made to desegregate, and we should rededicate ourselves to complete the task through tougher enforcement of anti-discrimination laws and through economic and educational policies to ensure that no American is stifled because of overt or covert prejudice and stereotyping.

But that is only part of the dream Dr. King envisioned. The hard part – integration – is still ahead of us, and each of us must look deep into our hearts to ask why we have come so far but still have so far to go.

This essay first appeared on TomPaine.com.