Is King’s dream still alive?

Martin Luther King Jr. seen during his “I Have a Dream” speech.AP The lead up to the 50 th anniversary … Continued

Martin Luther King Jr. seen during his “I Have a Dream” speech.AP

The lead up to the 50
anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech”
has provided a window of opportunity for reflecting on both progress and continued racial disparity in America. As King looked out on the crowd that hot August day half a century ago, he painted a portrait of equality, economic opportunity and integration, and called Americans to live into this aspirational vision.

Today, some progress has clearly been made. Down the mall from the Lincoln Memorial steps, America’s first black president occupies the oval office. Most of the overt barriers, such as Jim Crow laws and “separate but equal” public school policies, have been struck down. However, as much of the pre-anniversary writing has highlighted, significant racial gaps remain in areas such as education, income, health outcomes, upward mobility, and incarceration rates (see here, here, and PRRI’s infographic on remaining disparities here).

Recent PRRI research reveals that black Americans continue to report experiencing higher levels of a range of community problems, compared to white Americans. For example, significantly more black Americans than white Americans say the following are major problems in their communities: lack of good jobs (80 percent of blacks, 60 percent of whites), lack of opportunities for young people (68 percent of blacks, 52 percent of whites), lack of funding for public schools (64 percent of blacks, 45 percent of whites), home foreclosures (55 percent of blacks, 44 percent of whites), and crime (51 percent of blacks, 28 percent of whites).

Beyond the descriptive disparities, there is also evidence that their cumulative weight is differentially shaping white and black parents’ hopes for their children’s future. While a slim majority (53 percent) of white Americans disagree that children from all income groups have adequate opportunities to be successful, two-thirds (67 percent) of black Americans disagree.

White and black Americans are not only experiencing different community problems that lead to different evaluations of the impact of inequality, but they are also at odds over the underlying principle of equal opportunity itself. Nearly as many white Americans say it is not really that big a problem if some have more of a chance in life than others (44 percent) as say the opposite—that one of the big problems in this country is that we do not give everyone an equal chance in life (47 percent). Black Americans, by contrast, come down squarely supporting equal opportunity; more than three-quarters (77 percent) say that not giving everyone an equal chance is a fundamental problem in America today.

These numbers—which show not only disparities in current outcomes but also divergent hopes for a better life and disagreements on the principle of equal opportunity itself—are sobering reminders that realizing King’s dream, both in practice and in principle, remains a work in progress.

Robert P. Jones
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