Revisiting the Dream

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." ~ The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28, 1963

This is perhaps the most quoted phrase from Dr. King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech, and it is embraced by persons across the various barriers of identity we tend to erect around us. The fact those barriers still exist, however, should be an indication of how much more work needs to be done to achieve "The Dream", and given the fundamental goodness of the vision as articulated by Dr. King, it is sobering to realize how dramatic the differences are in how blacks and whites interpret its meaning.

I have often said that words matter, and in a year when the word "matter" itself took center stage as we debated the value of life by demographics, how blacks and whites receive this seemingly universal statement is critically important, because if we don't understand the different perceptions, we can't establish lines of communication to make things better.

I used to have the same perspective on Dr. King's vision as my white conservative friends, who embraced me first and foremost as a fellow traveler who shared their beliefs and principles.  As far as I could tell, my race was irrelevant to them. That's how the world is supposed to be, isn't it?

I couldn't understand why black activists would become apoplectic every time a conservative uttered Dr. King's words, other than the notion that because he was a black hero, whites had no claim to him. I thought that was an utterly foolish notion, since Dr. King always presented his vision as a universal one that invited everyone to the table. One of my favorite King quotes is "We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now." The Dream, at best as I can perceive it, is inclusive, not exclusive.

As I sought to understand the objections of some of my black friends to conservatives' misappropriation, in their view, of Dr. King's vision, I decided to put aside my beliefs and experiences, and listen to what they were saying. Proverbs 17:27-28 says:

He who restrains his words has knowledge, And he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; When he closes his lips, he is considered prudent.

The wisdom gained from silence is primarily because you can't hear what another has to say if you're talking. What I heard surprised and disturbed me.

What blacks hear when whites use "content of their character" is far removed from the meaning whites think they are conveying. To black ears, a white person invoking King's words is deflecting claims of continued racism in our society, and admonishing the black community for the pathologies that continue to plague them. After all, if race isn't a factor, then issues like family breakdown, crime, poor educational achievement and joblessness must be due to weaknesses in character, a conclusion which the black community finds unequivocally unacceptable. More importantly, when it comes to matters of law and policy, blacks believe as long as whites promote a narrative of character over race, they will refuse to act on what the black community perceives as pervasive structural inequities based on race.

To a white person, Dr. King's words represent an immediate action to be taken. Eliminating distinctions and protections based on race is the only way to render them meaningless. To quote Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

To a black person, Dr. King's words represent a goal that is attainable but not yet realized. Until minds and hearts as well as laws have been changed, it is unrealistic and impractical to disavow race and racism in America. Dr. Lewis V. Baldwin of Vanderbilt University declares, "To ignore color is to ignore reality...Dr. King understood that we all see we are different. You accept color differences, affirm them, celebrate them, but don't allow them to become a barrier to human community."

To a white person, a color blind society means we will be free of bias based on race. To a black person, a color blind society means they will be invisible. We are at an impasse.

What's laughable about it is that both sides think political action is the way to break the stalemate, despite the fact that it hasn't effectively moved the needle for decades. Affirmative action? It's still a matter of intense debate and disagreement, and time and the courts are slowly eroding its viability  as a solution. Housing discrimination? Segregated neighborhoods persist throughout the nation, and the despair they create is a contributing factor in racial unrest. Criminal justice reform? The tension between law enforcement and the black community in the wake of several highly publicized shootings of black people by white police officers is higher than ever. I could go on, but I think my point is clear. In our search for solutions, we inexplicably return time and again to the same institutions which have failed us multiple times before.

It's not for lack of trying that politics has failed to bridge the racial divide. It's simply that politics, where power is the ultimate prize, selflessness is a weakness to be exploited, and winning means someone else must lose, is ill-equipped to deal with something that is, at its core, a sin of the heart.

The fact that every move forward in race relations in America came about by force ought to give us pause. The nation equivocated on the issue of slavery until a civil war nearly tore it apart. When the Northern troops left the South in 1877, the separate but unequal scourge of segregation, the indoctrination of blacks to believe they were lesser than their white counterparts, and the reign of terror against blacks in the South began. It took the National Guard escorting black school children and college students through gauntlets of screaming, cursing white people, a civil rights movement punctuated by shootings, fire hoses, police dogs, bombings and beatings, and the punitive force of laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, to bring a close to that sordid chapter in our nation's history. Since then, race in this country has been like a smoldering underground fire which occasionally erupts onto the surface and is quickly tamped down but never really extinguished.

Dr. King, however, had more to say than the phrase we use and misuse so often. He used the word "dream" in his speech nine times, and in the last reference he made to The Dream, he reveals the source of his hope:

I have a dream today ... I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope.

He is quoting from the 40th chapter of Isaiah, where the Lord is exhorting the people of Israel to give them courage and hope in the midst of their trials. He reminded them of His infinite power and grace, and He promised them that if they patiently and faithfully looked to Him, they would find the victory:

Why do you complain, Jacob?     Why do you say, Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord;     my cause is disregarded by my God”? Do you not know?     Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God,     the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary,     and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary     and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary,     and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord     will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles;     they will run and not grow weary,     they will walk and not be faint.

~ Isaiah 40:27-31

The Dream is firmly rooted in the power of a transcendent God to change what laws and coercion cannot change -- the human heart. If we are to realize a world where color is secondary to character, then we must first work on the nation's character as it currently stands, individually and collectively, and we must do so using the fruit of the Spirit - "love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23). Are these traits normally associated with political institutions and activists? I think you know the answer to that question.

The founders who created the political institutions which govern our nation knew the answer to that question as well. They studied the governments of ancient and modern times to design a system of governance unlike any that had existed prior, and they concluded that it was essential to create a nation where religion could flourish without fear of government direction or oppression.

They rejected a state-sponsored religion because history and their own experiences informed them of how such an alliance corrupts the institutions of church and state, and they concluded that they should operate in independent but complementary spheres of influence.

James Madison, "the Father of the Constitution", wrote, "The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries." He also said, "Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Government."

At the same time, however, the founders knew that good government is impossible without a virtuous people, and only God is in the virtue business. James Madison also wrote, "To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea." George Washington said, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports."  John Adams gave perhaps the most direct assessment of the inexorable link between good government and a virtuous people:

[B]ecause we have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

There is a direct thread from the statements of the founders to the words of Dr. King who, as a man of God, understood that the battle was waged not only in the political arena, but also in the hearts of the people. If we are to realize The Dream, we can't force it through political action, and we can't ignore the fact that we're not there yet.

My policy wonk friends get frustrated with me for always emphasizing the need to win hearts in order for policy to truly be effective, but it is unrealistic to pass a law and walk away as if everyone is on board. Culture is always upstream of politics, and if we want to realize Dr. King's vision, we need to do the hard work of persuasion based in love to win the culture to the side of righteousness.

In the aftermath of the racially motivated Charleston church shooting, in which an avowed white supremacist murdered nine black churchgoers, including the pastor, in the midst of an evening Bible study, we were treated to a display of Christian grace that contradicted the conventional wisdom of how to respond after an act of racial violence. The members of Emanuel AME Church eschewed hate and extended forgiveness to Dylan Roof, the accused murderer, and when white supremacists and black activists confronted each other in the heart of the city during a day of protest, the enduring image from that episode was of a black South Carolina state trooper gently escorting an elderly white supremacist into the shade to recover after he displayed symptoms of heat stroke. That image reminded me of the Scripture in Proverbs that the apostle Paul quoted in Romans 12:20:

On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head."

President Obama said the reaction in Charleston to the shootings demonstrated "the power of God's grace", and columnist Eugene Robinson wrote, "The city, and really the whole state, displayed a remarkable sense of unity and common purpose" that "obliterated all racial and ideological lines."  It was an amazing display of character over color or anything else that typically divides us, and that should give us hope that The Dream isn't out of our reach - if we call upon the God whose arms are long enough to reach it.