The politics of recognition — the official acknowledgment of previously excluded groups in a society — and the need for social change are related but different challenges. If recognition is being achieved for black America as a whole, but structural barriers remain unchallenged for many blacks, then we are merely perpetuating inequality, despite the visible gains by some.
We are not a post-racial society, in which race no longer matters. At best, we are a post-racist society — in which formal legal barriers against African Americans and other minorities have been eliminated, but the legacy of those barriers endures.
Yet, in the collective national memory, King is often summed up by one passage from his 1963 “dream” speech: “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 focus on these words, so celebrated by Americans of all political stripes, obscures the memory of the broader struggle that made the Obama presidency possible.
In the days leading up to Obama’s second inauguration, we’ve heard many comparisons between him and King, and it is easy to assume that the president is an extension of King’s legacy and the civil rights movement. For black America, in particular, Obama has already joined the pantheon of great African American leaders, alongside Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Malcolm X and, of course, King. He has joined their ranks not for his activism or his efforts to break down racial inequality, but for the symbolic weight of being the nation’s first black president.
The history and legacy of that president have yet to be written, yet to be set in stone. Not so with King, unfortunately. Like his granite image on the Mall, the civil rights leader’s memory seems immovable, stuck in 1963, with the March on Washington. As with so many of our national heroes, his ideas are no longer perceived to threaten the status quo — even though they do, or at least they should.
The most cherished passages from the “I have a dream” speech convey the spirit of America’s promise and the hope that one day the nation will live up to its creed. But we must never forget that the King on the Mall and the president in the White House are where memory fades and national mythology begins.
Read more from Outlook:
Still waiting for our first black president
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