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In April of this year, it will be 43 years since the assassination of this nation’s premier civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. During that tumultuous and volatile time in 1968, it would have been unfathomable to even think of having an African-American President or a billionaire named Oprah Winfrey who could own an entire television network. Even as recently as the 1980s in New York, when we were forced to tackle racial outbursts like those in Howard Beach and Bensonhurst, it would be difficult to imagine a day where we would be living side-by-side with one another in harmonious neighborhoods.
I still look at my scar from a stab wound at that protest in Bensonhurst, but I take comfort in the fact that I can look at my TV and see a black President salute a gay Latino Congressional aide who saved the life of a Jewish member of the House of Representatives in the state of Arizona. Dr. King’s vision is nearly fulfilled.
As we take pride in our tremendous collective progress, we must remember to utilize all of this renewed energy and apply it toward some of the areas in which we still can equalize the playing field.
We have harnessed the ability to heal and relate to one another on a very real and personal level, but now we must transfer that capability in the direction of education, employment and our criminal justice system. The vast majority of New Yorkers work alongside one another without racial or ethnic strife. We thankfully do not have open mob attacks on people, nor lynchings, nor segregation.
But what we do have is unequal access to jobs, quality education and an imbalanced prison culture. Once we rid society of racial discrimination on an institutional level, then and only then will Dr. King’s dream be fully realized.
An integral platform of my work has consistently centered on serving as a voice for the voiceless and shedding light on injustice wherever feasible. Unfortunate incidents of police brutality like those involving Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo and, more recently, Sean Bell required immediate attention and action to hold the perpetrators accountable. But these horrific incidents also served as a teachable moment for everyone — despite his or her ethnic background — to acknowledge the very real existence of abusive and biased police conduct. And during these times, we were all forced to take a stern, hard look in the mirror to see how our own shortcomings and preconceived ideas may have contributed to a climate of hatred and animosity.
The violent assaults in Howard Beach and Bensonhurst during the 80s highlighted the very real and very grave extent of racial intolerance. But these two tragic periods afforded us the opportunity to engage in an honest dialogue surrounding ideas of bias, hatred and equality. We openly tackled these obstacles and thankfully today, we do not see instances of white mobs hunting down black men — or vice-versa.
It’s now 2011, and after decades of marches, non-violent protests, calls for action, education and organizing, people as a whole are finally more accepting of each other. An Indian-American female can serve as a governor, a Latino Congressman can represent all of the constituents in his or her respective district and an African American man can be elected to the highest office in the land. In our city alone, even the number of unwarranted police shootings is finally dwindling. Thanks in part to a concerted effort that forced us to confront these issues, we have been able to transcend many of the social barriers that impeded our progress just a few years ago.
So if there are no longer any polarizing conflicts like Howard Beach and Bensonhurst, why must we still continue to discuss race? If we are more socially accepting as a society, why then do we still protest and organize? If young people of color can achieve superstardom, attend Ivy League schools and serve at the highest levels of government, why is race still relevant? If we are in fact closer to sustaining racial peace now than at any other point in history, why do people like myself continue the good fight against discrimination?
The answer is really quite simple: We are still awaiting institutional justice.
In the wake of the economic crisis of 2008, young black men have been disproportionately hit the hardest. In cities as diverse as ours, it is an incomprehensible reality that unemployment rates within the black and Latino communities are astronomically higher than in other ethnic groups. According to several studies, nearly 50% of all young black men in New York City are unemployed. Other studies put that figure even higher when taking in to account the number of underemployed.
As our economy makes a slow recovery, unfortunately not everyone is feeling the effects. When jobs are few and far between, oftentimes managers, executives and decision makers will bring aboard those who most closely resemble themselves.
And though we may have begun to recognize and accept one another, regrettably, certain segments of the population are still deemed as threats.
Without adequate employment and stability, a family structure diminishes, as does any notion of providing long-term wealth. The racially unjust measures of the moment will have repercussions for years to come.
An unfortunate reality of poverty and lack of employment is a rise in crime. Without livable wages, more and more young people of color fall victim to a life of illegal activity. Equally disheartening, however, is the imbalanced way in which our criminal justice system operates. Receiving harsher sentences, and oftentimes unfairly profiled, these young folks are housed in overcrowded prisons that are bursting at the seams.
If we all agree that locking an individual behind bars for petty crimes only hardens him or her, we must work to seek alternatives instead of expanding our prison industrial complex.
Over the course of approximately the last two years, I spent much of my energy and time focused on another impending dilemma — our crumbling education system.
Putting aside political differences and teaming up with former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former schools chancellor Joel Klein and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, I focused heavily on the dire and urgent need for reform.
It should come as no surprise that much of the inequality in our education system falls along racial lines. Overwhelmingly receiving unequal access to good education from the onset, many young black and Latino students find themselves at a severe disadvantage in obtaining success. Countless studies and reports have proven that children who begin reading and writing later than average fall years behind their counterparts. Playing a game of catchup through high school and college, if they get there, they are consistently vying for a fighting chance — when we as a society have failed them.
How can we expect greatness when we don’t even provide the basic necessities for a proper education — mainly, the quality teachers every child deserves?
And how can we blame these children for not attending college and bettering themselves when we deliver a message of hopelessness from the beginning? Before we criticize the youth, we must take a look at our own priorities as a nation, and as a people.
Everyday, I am encouraged by the changes I witness around me. And everyday we inch a step closer toward racial equanimity. It took years of protests, organized marches and the sacrifices of many to achieve the success we enjoy today. As a country, we are far more accepting than ever, and racially biased incidents will hopefully be confined to the history books.
But in terms of education, employment and incarceration, much work remains.
It is my hope, and the hope of many, that we can in fact apply our new racial attitudes toward ensuring a new, more racially just reality in our national institutions. In the spirit of our great civil rights leader Dr. King, we will continue to peacefully seek these measures so that one day we can truly say race is no longer relevant.
We as a nation have achieved ardent success; let us now continue until we see the dream all the way through. We have borne witness to the detrimental effects of institutional racism; let us now continue to strive for the day we experience institutional justice.
Sharpton is president of the National Action Network.