Dr. Nikki Brown / Contributing Writer
Dr. Nikki Brown, an associate professor of history at the University of New Orleans, wrote the following opinion essay in response to Gov. Bobby Jindal's recent opinion column "The end of race" on Politico.com, and also with an eye on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
The March on Washington of 1963 is one of my favorite topics to discuss with students. I teach history at the University of New Orleans and every day I meet bright and inquisitive students, who love history. Today, on its 50th anniversary, we have the occasion to talk about the March on Washington.
Gov. Bobby Jindal, in his recent essay for Politico, also presents to us a great opportunity to explore the power of race, ethnicity and economic advancement in American society today. Gov. Jindal says that the notion of the American melting pot no longer has a place in contemporary American society, because there is too much focus on ethnic or racial identity and not enough on American identity.
My college and graduate education serves as an example of the power of dreams. I attended Oberlin College, or as I like to call it, the “free-thinking, hippie college of northern Ohio.” Oberlin made history in 1835, when it became the first all-white college to accept and graduate African-Americans. After graduating from Oberlin, I earned a Ph.D. in history from Yale University, one of the first Ivy League universities to admit African-Americans. These accomplishments honor the hopes my parents and grandparents had for me.
Moreover, my education also demonstrates that the schools joined the hopefulness of the March on Washington with a plan of action. Oberlin and Yale, and many universities like them, have policies in place that value diversity, particularly the diversity of race. These schools go out of their way and spend millions of dollars developing policies to attract people of color to their campuses. Why? Because they recognize how vitally important diversity is to the American university system. All types of diversity make American universities the best in the world. It’s the ability to fold together divergent cultures, languages, religious beliefs, food, music and identities that makes the United States so interesting and so attractive.
Focusing only the dream, losing touch with reality
Alternatively, when one focuses only on the dream, one loses touch with reality. The reality is that for most African Americans, racism remains the most compelling factors when considering the impact of stagnant wages, poor education and lack of opportunity. The Great Recession hit African-American households doubly hard. Regardless of their credit rating, African-American and Latino-Americans were more likely to be offered sub-prime mortgages, and thus, were more likely to lose their homes in the housing bust. Currently, unemployment rate for African-Americans is 14 percent nationally, nearly twice that of whites. In Louisiana, the 2013 unemployment rate for whites is 4.3 percent, but 12 percent for African-Americans. Nationally, the cuts demanded by sequestration wiped out locally-run education programs like Head Start, which carried on the vitally important work of preparing all children, regardless of race, for reading and writing in kindergarten. For many Americans, the reality of racial and economic inequality continues to overshadow the hopefulness of the March on Washington.
This is the point that people often miss in Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech in 1963. At the March on Washington, in the first half of the speech, Dr. King spoke of a promise of opportunity unfulfilled, a check “stamped insufficient funds” that cannot be cashed in the halls of justice. The “I Have a Dream” rhetoric appears in the second half of the speech. And let us not forget that the full title of the March on Washington is the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” King spent the rest of his life battling poverty, hunger and economic inequality. When he died in 1968, Dr. King was in the middle of organizing a “Poor People’s Campaign” and a second march to Washington.
In 2013, the United States must have something more than dreams to guide us all to a more perfect union, as Gov. Jindal suggests. We must have a plan of action, a “to do” list, and the will and the resources to put the plan into action. Though Gov. Jindal disagrees with President Obama on most issues, Gov. Jindal cannot deny that the party with the broadest appeal to people of color also developed the most concrete policies to make Dr. King’s dream a reality: the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Right Act, Head Start, the Peace Corps, Americorps, Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare and, yes, the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obama-care). All of these legislative acts are rooted in Dr. King’s dream, and as King told us, his dream is the American Dream.
The End of Hyphenated Americans?
Finally, let me put on my historian’s hat, so that we can put Gov. Jindal’s call for “the end race” in context. This is a common criticism and one that dates back over a century. In the 1900s and 1910s, President Theodore Roosevelt and President Woodrow Wilson demanded an end to “hyphenated” Americans. Roosevelt once told a group of Irish-American supporters: “There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.” Gov. Jindal’s essay, in which he says that Americans “still place far too much emphasis on our separateness, our heritage, ethnic background, (and) skin color,” harkens back to this era.
As historical context, between 1890 and 1915 nearly 15 million people migrated to the United States. While Presidents Roosevelt and Wilson claimed that the ethnic disunity undermined national pride, it’s important to remember that the breakdown in social cohesion that Roosevelt and Wilson feared most never came to pass.
However, at the exact same time that Roosevelt and Wilson feared ethnic disunity, racial inequality – in form of segregation, employment and housing discrimination, brutal racial violence – limited the lives of millions of American citizens in every conceivable social and economic fashion. African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native-Americans, Latino-Americans – indeed, all people of color - would have to wait until after World War II for a comprehensive Civil Rights Act and a Voting Rights Act.
The reason why the 1963 March on Washington means so much to us now is because it is evenly divided between progress on one hand and policy on the other. It shows the vitality of the American spirit and the illuminating potential for change. The memory of the March on Washington continues to warm our hearts with the simple axiom: be the change you wish to see in the world, as Gandhi teaches us. On its 50th anniversary, the March on Washington reminds us that there is still an enormous task ahead and that we are up to the challenge.