Transforming America’s racial and
cultural dynamics is a lot like running a marathon. The only major differences
are time and course. The grueling 26.2 miles of a marathon is run in just over
two hours by world-class athletes, while the race toward King’s dream has
already been over 50 years in the making. Although we have some sense of the
finish line, the end of our course is not in sight. Further, it is hard
to judge our progress. We are not sure whether we should count certain “firsts”
as significant. Others believe that the depth of professional penetration by
blacks, Hispanics or other groups into various professional arenas is a more
appropriate measure of entering a post-racial era.
For example, milestones like the number
of black quarterbacks in the National Football League are informative, but how
should it be compared to how many black CEOs lead Fortune 100 companies? In
this regard, all of us seem prone to measure apples against oranges. My
mother’s generation of 80-year olds simply beams with pride at the progress,
while regretting the state of so many black youth and children. In her mind,
the Bible verse that says, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world
and to lose his soul” is prominent (see Mark 8:36).
Has black America come so close to the
dream and annihilation at the same time? Are we on the verge of the ultimate
success or are we pursuing the ultimate illusion – by chasing the fool’s gold
of hedonism? As an African-American, I believe that some folks have run the
race successfully (they have survived) but they are also in danger of being
Let me explain.
The most recent Pew Research polls on
race are exceptionally encouraging. Most people see a “convergence” of
both black and white values. More specifically the report reads as follows,
“Seven-in-ten whites (70 percent) and six-in-ten blacks (60 percent) say that
the values held by blacks and whites have become more similar in the past 10
years.” This is a little shocking given the fact that two years ago Pew
Research studies had blacks themselves self-identifying as two different black
communities – the under-privileged/under-achievers, and the aspiring, upwardly
mobile blacks. This kind of conflicting self-identification was the source of
conflict within schools for teenagers and young adults. Under -achievers would
call motivated black young people “white”, while promoting the thug
culture and gangster rap music as authentically being “black.”
The second most surprising aspect of the
2009 Pew Research analysis on race is that a majority of blacks (56 percent)
feel as though the standard of living gap between whites and blacks has
narrowed in the past decade. Since blacks feel that way, it is understandable
that nearly two-thirds of whites (65 percent) also believe that the standard of
living gap is lessening. Unfortunately, Pew pointed out that actual income
numbers do not support the feel of progress that both races celebrated. In
2008, black household income was only 61.8 percent of white household income.
This means for every $1,000 of annual income white families make only $618 of
income comes to black families.
Teamed with the optimism about the
standard of living, an amazing attitudinal change has emerged among blacks
about why they often don’t get ahead. The survey says that 15 years ago, most
blacks would have said that race was the reason they did not get ahead. Yet
gradually over time, black opinions have shifted to the concept that getting
ahead in the U.S. is mainly their own responsibility. In fact in 2009, a
whooping 52 percent are no longer willing to make racial prejudice an excuse
for black under-achievement.
Further, the one-drop test is no longer
the method of determining the race of a person. This concept led to many mixed-race
people having to hide their black ancestry, lest they get shut out of business
and social opportunities. This entire generation sees a category called
“mixed race.” Using President Barack Obama as a model, researchers showed that
61 percent of Hispanics see him as mixed race versus 39 percent who see the
president as black. Among whites, 53 percent say that he is mixed race, while
only one out of four see him as black. Finally, even among blacks just 55
percent (a majority) see the president as black, while 34 percent see him as
As we celebrate the birth of Dr. Martin
Luther King, the question of objective measures of our social progress is
especially poignant. I am concerned that blacks and other minorities may have
reached an all time high in race relations but are in danger of losing the
inner assets of character, faithfulness and commitment to family, which have
made them and their struggle so noble in the last generation.
I would hate to see blacks regress like
they did right after the Reconstruction Period following the Civil War. You may
remember this season in which there were numerous black elected officials and
unprecedented achievement followed by hatred, lynchings, and eventually Jim
Crow laws. No, I am not concerned about a white backlash against blacks.
I am more concerned about black kids that think that the murder of Emmit
Till is an unimaginable story … or others that feel that they are entitled to a
living or respect and recognition. For these reasons, my mother, wife and daughters
have educated and trained themselves arduously to be educators. This is why we
are upping our local church’s investment in daycare facilities, early childhood
development, and parental involvement.
We must run this race with patience and
a sense of honor, knowing that we are standing on the shoulders of giants.
Eleven years ago I ran my first marathon. It was for charity and the proceeds
of my fund raising went to HIV/AIDS research with the famed Whitman Walker
Clinic. I loved the training, my workout partners, and the amazing opportunity
to accomplish the athletic feat of a lifetime.
There was only one problem with this
quest for significance. Even though I had raised the money in advance, I had to
finish the race. During my first
marathon, I reached the 18th mile or so and felt like I could not finish the
rest of the race. This place in the race is called “the wall.” Just when I
almost stopped and told myself the leg cramps and pain were not worth it, an
injured friend who had been unable to run that race appeared on the sidelines.
Just hearing his voice inspired me; I felt that I was running for him, too. I
pushed past the pain, the cramps, and the lack of focus.
As we honor Dr. King this week, we pray for a new field of civil rights
marathoners who will run their race with honor and courage.