Certain dates such as 1984, Y2K, and 9/11 carry literal and symbolic significance. A less well known but equally significant date is 2042, the year the U.S. Census predicts that white Americans will comprise less than 50% of the U.S. population. Thus, it was appropriate that I gathered with approximately 400 people in from a wide variety of racial and cultural backgrounds and professions ranging from law to social work to philanthropy to education and much more, to imagine what an equitable multicultural society might look like in the year 2042. More importantly, we discussed what we needed to be working on today to make it happen. In many ways the racial and cultural make-up of the participants (and the relative percentages) closely approximated what U.S. society as a whole will look like in 2042. So while there were a large number of white people at the conference, they neither were dominant in number or in the presentations and workshops that were offered. Thus we both discussed and mirrored the society we hoped to exist in 2042.
At one point one of the workshop leaders asked: Do you think you will see significant change in racial justice in your lifetime? At 58 I was among the older participants at the conference, and so that question was compelling for me. When I look back over the changes that have taken place in my lifetime at one level they seem significant. Segregation and Jim Crow have been outlawed, civil rights are built into American law, opportunity seems to be crossing racial/cultural lines, overt attitudes and behaviors have changed, and in 2008 we elected an African-American president; these are no small achievements. On the other hand, the wealth gap and educational gap between whites and people of color are persistently high. We are as residentially segregated today as we were during the time of legal segregation. Young men of color are nearly as likely to end up in prison as they are to graduate from high school. We have created what Michelle Alexander has called the “new Jim Crow.” And behind closed doors attitudes of many whites while sanitized still reflect the racial fear and arrogance of earlier decades. Thus, I often wonder how far we have actually come.
When I hear political conservatives and Tea Party-ers talk about “taking the country back,” I wonder what do they want to take us back to. It is no accident that groups like the Tea Party are overwhelmingly white, and are perceived as a threat to many communities of color. Their anti-government stance threatens the one institution in society that has intervened on their behalf when individuals, schools and local communities sought to isolate or marginalize them. Conservative efforts to pass laws that allow law enforcement to profile individuals suspected of being undocumented is too close to experiences many people have had being guilty only of “driving while black” or being suspected of terrorism because of their Muslim religion. Though not explicit, the call “to take the country back” is a call to a time when whites exercised their power and privilege in ways that were destructive and even deadly for people of color.
So when I was asked to think as to whether I would see significant change toward racial justice in my life time, realizing that in my case that might be the next 25-30 years at best, I have to admit I was skeptical. Yet I continue to work and advocate for racial justice despite my skepticism – why? One of the presenters quoted author and legal scholar Derrick Bell who said it best (and I am paraphrasing): racism is prevalent and even seemingly permanent. Yet we should continue to struggle for racial justice, because even if we don’t reach the solution we seek, miracles can still occur.
Near the end of the conference, I was in a workshop where an African-American woman said: Some of you [meaning the whites in the room] can choose whether or not to be engaged with the struggle for racial justice, but some of us are born into it and never had a choice. I know what she means and agree with her: racial injustice does not impact me personally in the way it does people of color. However, in reflecting on her statement I realized that for me at this point in my life turning back to the time of legitimizing white power and dominance over the institutions of society, and sweeping our racism under the rug in claims of color blindness is no longer an option. I realized that despite my cynicism about the lack of progress and the conservative backlash, I am living into the hope and dream of 2042: a society in which Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of an equitable society is not just highlighted once a year, but rather is evident in that people of all races, cultures and religions live together in a society where one truly is judged not by the color their skin [or their accent or language, or the covering they wear over their face, or the turban they wear on their head], but rather by the content of their character. That’s the dream of 2042 and the dream I live into and plan to work for as long as I am able.