At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, it wasn't that we should fight -- that was clear -- it was how we should fight that Martin Luther King, Jr. most effectively communicated. But today the landscape has changed. Despite the clear inequalities that remain, without concrete sanctions, a call to action is much more difficult to articulate.
Today's disparities are more insidious than Jim Crow. As I noted in my post on black male achievement, the inequalities of the 21st century aren't explicit, and the law does not sanction them, but the statistics are both tangible and disturbing.
In fact, both the black infant mortality rate and the black unemployment rate are more than twice that of whites. Two-thirds of black children live in single-parent households, almost three times that of white children. And one-third of black children live in poverty. And while African American men represent only 14 percent of the population, they make up 40 percent of the prison demographic, three times that of Hispanic men, and seven times that of white men.
Sadly, the people most effected by these dismal statistics are also the most marginalized, which speaks to the continued relevance of black leaders. And, while the Occupy Wall Street movement illustrates that organizing can happen without a singular leader, some would argue that the absence of leadership is part of the reason they have only come so far.
Black leadership is currently divided. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley pit scathing attacks against President Obama, who the majority of blacks support, while Al Sharpton lashes out against West and other black leaders for, he claims, silently doing nothing.
But it's been that way all along. Malcolm X passionately believed that Dr. King's non-violent tactics didn't do justice to the profound way that blacks had been subjugated, beaten down and torn apart. And, W.E.B Dubois deeply disagreed with Booker T. Washington's focus on racial solidarity and independence.
What made Martin Luther King, Jr.'s message so timeless was that it was built on universal moral truths. He tried, though not always successfully, to remove ego and personality from the equation.
He took the black issue and made it a spiritual one, even fighting for causes other than those that effected him directly. He never spoke out with hateful language, and took a stand against violence even when it made him extremely unpopular.
Ultimately, the black predicament is a human problem. And the first step is to acknowledge, not out of guilt, but out of honesty, that the alarming racial disparity in this country requires more than a surface analysis. As a society, we must publicly affirm the inequality within the black community and decree that the problem has roots reaching back to the first arrival of slaves in the 1600s.
Explicitly, it has not been done. In fact, in some places, what has been acknowledged is now threatened. Recently, the Tea Party groups in Tennessee began working to remove information related to slavery and our founding fathers from Tennessee textbooks. This just a year after a the Texas Board of Education approved massive revisions to the school's textbooks which put slavery in a more positive light.
By remaining silent on the issue, we effectively place the blame on black Americans -- a dangerous position. Just look at the broad acceptance and even praise received at the behest of comments like the one made by Newt Gingrich, who has encouraged black people to demand jobs, "not food stamps."
Sanctioned racism is a thing of the past, but deep inequality has proven to be a lasting piece of the African-American experience. To see an end to that inequality, which is built into the fabric of American society, will require tactics appropriate to this evolved, complex racial landscape. What that means is up for debate, but it is a conversation that we must have, not only within the black community, but with the community at large.