Now what? On the morning after – after the singing, the praying and the marching – the daunting statistics linger like a bad hangover.
The 12.6 percent black unemployment rate remains twice that of whites, a ratio that hasn’t changed much since the original March on Washington.
The earnings gap also remains stuck at roughly 2-to-1. And the wealth gap – the value of homes, stocks and other assets used to open businesses or finance an education – has actually widened.
The problem, of course, is that numbers are much harder to mobilize against than police dogs or fire hoses.
In fact, the best measure of how far we have and have not come can be found in the same place: the Oval Office, where a black president dare not even speak of such inequality unless forced to by circumstances – think the Rev. Jeremiah Wright or Trayvon Martin – or an anniversary such as Wednesday’s
A Bill Bradley, running for president in 2000, could talk candidly about “white skin privilege” and all its advantages. But Barack Obama dare not use the bully pulpit to attack the gaps, lest he add more fuel to the impeachment talk that is one more measure of where things stand 50 years later.
So is the effort to roll back voting rights, as Republicans double down on their strategy of never again seriously competing for the black vote.
So where does that leave blacks today, confined to one party and watching that party afraid to speak on their behalf except on golden anniversaries?
It leaves blacks to turn back to the same self-help they relied upon before the civil rights movement, albeit from a much stronger base.
It leaves them to reject the seduction of a faux equality that lured too many into a perverse sense of freedom unaffordable 50 years ago: The freedom to gun one another down with an efficiency the Klan could only envy. The freedom to sell drugs to one another, destroying black neighborhoods and feeding a prison industry that can only be called “volunteer slavery.” The freedom to self-sabotage with language, behavior and dress that ensure second-class citizenship, no matter how many civil rights laws are on the books.
It leaves them to mobilize to remake their own neighborhoods, demanding from government what’s due while recognizing that government will not do what a community won’t do for itself.
You can see some fruits of that kind of mobilization on Buffalo’s East Side.
Sam Radford, a leader in the Buffalo Local Action Committee that pressed a variety of reforms before turning its focus to education, is not naive about the challenges that remain.
Nevertheless, he points to projects such as the Michigan Avenue cultural corridor, Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, Perry Choice Neighborhood and the job-creating initiatives of churches such as True Bethel Baptist and Bethesda World Harvest International in expressing a new optimism about Buffalo. Mobilizing around such local efforts is how change will occur today.
Unlike 50 years ago, the solutions won’t come from Washington. Anyone waiting for that in the current political climate is just dreaming. And that’s not what Martin Luther King Jr. had in mind.