Monday, January 19, 2009

Some Optimism on MLK Day

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech over 45 years ago. Since then he has come to represent the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, he has been properly lionized by blacks and whites alike, and is even remembered once a year with a celebration of his birthday.

And every year on this day the nation looks itself in the mirror as millions of citizens continue to ask “has his dream yet come true?”

Even after 45 years, after some time of thought on the subject, the answer usually comes out “No - it’s closer - but still unrealized.”

There are plenty of good reasons for such conclusions. For decades now, studies have shown that Americans are pessimistic about race relations. Even after President Clinton made the giant leap to direct Americans to talk about the state of race relations, these studies have demonstrated that most citizens are typically uncomfortable talking about what still needs to be done to achieve the Dream.

Until recently.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, President-Elect Barack Obama has been “an omnipresent icebreaker” in what psychologists call “interracial anxiety”.

"Cross-racial discussion about the topic of race seems to have become more common, and somewhat less fraught, with the rise of Mr. Obama, according to historians, psychologists, sociologists and other experts on race relations, as well as a number of blacks and whites interviewed around the country.

"‘All this exposure to this very counter-stereotypical African-American has actually changed — at least temporarily — what is on the tip of the tongue,’ said E. Ashby Plant, a psychologist at Florida State University and an author of a new study examining the impact of Mr. Obama on the attitudes of whites. ‘It may have very important implications.’

"…The unpublished study found that the answers revealed little evidence of anti-black bias, in sharp contrast to many earlier studies (including one by Dr. Plant) showing that roughly 80 percent of whites have some degree of bias."

According to one individual the Times interviewed “there’s a more readily accessible conduit into the conversation about race if it begins with Barack Obama.”

But Barack Obama alone is obviously not the cure-all to the poor state of race relations in the United States. Obama himself said in a speech last year that it was naïve to think “we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy… [race relations are something in America] that we’ve never really worked through”.

And he’s right. A recent poll shows that while only 34% of whites believe that race relations in America are bad, over 60% of blacks agree.

Furthermore, psychologists are showing the new tensions among people of different skin colors. “Strategic colorblindness”, for example, is a way that whites try not to seem racist by going to great lengths to pretend they don’t even recognize race as a factor in their relationships (see Stephen Colbert). Furthermore, two studies showed that African-Americans often view this tactic as prejudice.

And of course, there is the socio-economics: roughly a quarter of minority individuals in the United States live below the poverty line - compared to less than 10% of whites.

Despite these shortcomings, however, optimism that King’s Dream will come true is at an all time high.

"Polls have captured increasing optimism among Americans about the future of race relations. The day after Mr. Obama was elected, a Gallup poll found that 67 percent of Americans believed a solution to black-white racial problems would eventually be worked out. Gallup said that it had been asking the same question for four decades, and that a poll last summer also reflected substantially more optimism than previously."

So while the Dream may not yet be a reality, these recent studies and polls do give us hope - as did the man who will take the oath of office as the first African-American President tomorrow, as well as the man whose birthday we celebrate today.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

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