What can one say about the state of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream of racial and social equality as we approach his 83rd birthday on Monday? A great deal. Volumes and volumes. Why so much? Because the work of achieving racial equality, ending poverty and ending war is so unfinished.
While it is indeed amazing that a young man, assassinated at age 39, could -- through the sheer force of his will and passion for social justice -- shame a nation into ending the legalized apartheid of Jim Crow, we still live in a nation where being a person of color, too often, means facing racial oppression and second-class citizenship.
I work for an organization with a major campaign to prohibit the practice of racial profiling by law enforcement through federal legislation. We devote tremendous energy and resources to this effort to ending the discrimination and dehumanization people face through interaction with local and state police, border patrol, ICE, the FBI and CIA. Consider these facts: In New York City, 600,000 people -- nearly 90 percent black and Latino -- were frisked by police on New York streets in 2010 because they were young and Black or Latino.
Decades have passed since King led the nation to confront structural racism, yet the New York Police Department operate a virtual police state in some communities. In the city's communities of color, the NYPD degrades and humiliates young men of color through invasive searches that trample daily on the U.S. Constitution's rights to privacy and equal treatment under the law.
Although blacks and Latinos are far less likely to have guns or drugs than the relatively small numbers of whites that are frisked, the NYPD seems to use humiliation and intimidation to keep communities living in fear, on edge and off balance. (Read how the fear of another invasive search has affected college student Nicholas Peart.)
Unfortunately, stop and frisk is just one form of racial profiling we see in this country. An Associated Press story published in August revealed that the NYPD and CIA have operated a joint spying operation, targeting Muslim and ethnic communities for surveillance. After September 11, the NYPD sent undercover officers, disparagingly dubbed "mosque crawlers," to infiltrate mosques. Officers were dispatched to bars, Internet cafes and bookstores and pressed Muslims arrested for minor misdemeanors to furnish information on their friends and neighbors.
For the Muslim, Arab, Middle Eastern and South Asian communities in New York, already suffering increased discrimination after 9/11, the singling out for particular scrutiny can only make them feel more isolated, more marginalized and more fearful of one another and law enforcement. This discriminatory surveillance is not only a problem in New York. The FBI similarly engages in information-gathering based on ethnicity and race.
Another form of discriminatory policing is evident in the passage of "papers please" laws, in states like Arizona, Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia, which require police to investigate the immigration status of people police suspect are undocumented. It's obvious that these laws were passed in response to xenophobic and anti-immigrant feelings and will fall hardest on people who are Latino and assumed to be Latino.
We are a long way from living in a society where we are judged by the content of our character as King longed for and are, still, so often, judged based on the color of our skin, our dress, our names and our accents.
I was not yet three years old when King was killed. I'm now 46. Consider where we are in reference to his dream. The number of poor people are increasing, while incomes for the middle class have been stagnant since the 1970s. The growth in wealth has gone to the wealthy, the upper one percent, as Occupy Wall Street protestors so rightly point out. King's focus was not only on racial injustice but "poverty, militarism and materialism." He argued that a "reconstruction of society itself was the real issue to be faced."
Yet the nation's leaders -- wealthy members of congress -- talk about chipping away at the social safety net, Medicare and Social Security, while some seek to overturn a health law that was intended, in part, to provide health care coverage to the poorest among us.
King was a proponent of global peace, yet tens of thousands have died in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were launched under the guise of preventing terrorism.
On this, King's 83rd birthday, it makes sense to ask whether we are fighting enough for greater social justice or too complacent, too cynical, too beaten down to make the kind of strides King accomplished.
I am certain of one thing, though, King would tell us to get up and stand tall. He would tell us to fight back harder and that change is still possible.
King's dream of greater racial and social equality like all of our dreams must be fought for and whatever gains we achieve must be guarded. We can never just sit back. It's 2012, a new year, I think we can all do more so the world is just a tiny bit better by King's next birthday. Let's figure out what that is.
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