The “dream” plus 50

I watched with interest the series of commemorations a couple of weeks ago, on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. As I listened and read about the speeches, I began to wonder about the issues facing the African-American community, and for that matter, the entire American culture, today.

This is a sensitive topic to address, simply because I’m a 60-year-old white guy. I don’t want to come across as an insensitive bigot, but that seems to be the risk whenever you touch on anything related to race.

My question is this; after 50-plus years of struggle against oppression from outside the African-American community, has the civil rights movement now reached the point where the most fertile territory for continued growth is not outside that community, but rather within?

50 years ago, the issues were fairly clear. African Americans were restricted by a series of restraints imposed from outside their community — segregation, voting rights, fair housing, and so on. What’s the story today? Specifically, what are the issues, the causes and the solutions?

For the issues, I’ll turn to former Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson, who spoke at an event at a local college. He is a smart guy, a former two-term mayor and college professor. As quoted in the local newspaper, Johnson said:

“The fight definitely is not over.”

“Our unemployment rate is still twice that of whites, our poverty rate is astounding, our dropout rate is still very unacceptable, and you go on and on and on about the key factors in the lives of people of color…So the struggle must continue.”

Unemployment, poverty and dropout rate – those are good places to start. I’ll add a fourth — single parenthood, especially teenaged single-motherhood.

It is obvious the first three, and even the fourth, are all connected. If you drop out of high school, you will probably be unemployed, or only qualified for only low-paying jobs, and hence, be poor. If you start having children in your mid-teens, and without the benefit of a committed husband/father, the odds are also excellent that you will drop out of school, be un- or underemployed and poor. The out-of-wedlock birth rate in the African American community is outrageous — nearly 68% (two and a half times the white community’s rate.) Unfortunately, that frequently means “Dad” is not around, and the children are being raised by single mothers, grandmothers, and so on.
The Brookings Institute produced its fairly famous three rules for avoiding poverty.

  • Finish high school
  • Don’t marry until 21 and don’t have children before marriage.
  • Have a full-time job.

It sounds simple. It is also clear that many young men and women of color are not following these guidelines.

I realize there are still external barriers that minorities will face. I won’t pretend it’s an entirely level playing field.  However, on an individual basis, none of these steps is all that difficult. For today’s young black teens, the right course is obvious. So how do you convince a generation of young people to actually act in their own best interest? I don’t think the answer is going to come from Washington or from people who look like me. The answer has to come from within the young people’s own community. Ultimately, you have to convince young African Americans (and young people of any ethnicity, for that matter) to stay in school and out of their boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s pants. That ethic must come from within the families and the community, not from a government program.

Yes, Dr. Johnson, the fight must go on, and there are still steps society in general can take. But for a significant part of the problem, the solution must come from within. Perhaps it is time for African American leaders to look to that great comic strip philosopher, Pogo.

“We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

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