It’s a little tricky to measure how far we have come toward fulfilling the dream of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – that’s like trying to measure love, isn’t it? But it’s worth thinking about because thinking about our progress helps us to come up with the right questions. It’s never a waste of time to ask the right questions.
The parts of that iconic speech in 1963 that tend to get quoted are the elements of the dream – for instance, that one day children will live in a nation “where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” To me, however, the end of the speech is most instructive; it sets out what will happen when we have achieved the dream. Rev. King told us that, when his dream is achieved, we’ll all join hands and sing:
Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
He ended his speech there and did not elaborate, but Rev. King was a minister and his frame of reference was likely Biblical, similar to Jesus promise to his disciples that if they follow him, they will “know the truth and the truth will set you free.”
Rev. King seemed to be saying that, if we take the high road, we can be set free from the negative emotions that keep us apart, like hatred, racism and fear. So how can we measure progress in freeing ourselves from hatred, racism and fear?
We could look at many statistics that are part of the usual diversity and inclusion metrics, but I submit that we can get a good measure of how much we have freed ourselves from these emotions by looking at the areas of our lives closest to our hearts: friends, church and family.
Here are three questions I think we need to ask:
1. How integrated are our friendships? The data on this question tends to vary, as one might expect when trying to measure something as elusive as friendship. But we do appear to be getting closer to one another. For instance, a “massive longitudinal survey of American youth collected annually from 1976 to 1995” by Tuch, Sigelman, and MacDonald found that, “Overall, the proportions of cross-race friendships in the U.S. appear to be increasing for both children and adults.”
Good stuff, but before we join hands to sing kumbaya, consider a Reuters/Ipsos poll released in 2013, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting that divided Americans along racial lines: “About 40 percent of white Americans and about 25 percent of nonwhite Americans are surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race,” the poll found.
2. How integrated are our churches? Rev. King once said that 11 a.m. Sunday is “ the most segregated hour in America.” It’s becoming less segregated, according to the most recent National Congregations Study. This study, funded by the respected Pew Research Center, found that the number of Americans attending integrated churches (defined as churches where no one race or ethnic group makes up 80 percent or more of the congregation) rose from 15 percent in 1998 to 20 percent in 2012. So we’re moving in the right direction. But the vast majority of us still attend segregated churches – or, to put it in old-fashioned terms, most of us still prefer to worship with our own kind.
3. How willing are we to marry different races? Interracial marriage was not only unpopular in the 1960s; it was, in many states, illegal. Sixteen states still had laws on the books in 1967 banning miscegenation. The U.S. Census did not even begin measuring interracial marriage until 1960, when the rate was less than 1 percent.
But in the 2010 Census, 9.5 percent of American marriages were interracial or interethnic. That’s real progress.
It’s easy to catch an Eminem concert with your friend of another race. It’s probably a bit harder to attend church with another race because you almost have to let your true self out when you’re worshiping the almighty. The relationship has to be more real. And it’s something else altogether to welcome another race into your family.
The challenging thing is that we all have to let go of these emotions if we are to be set free. But that’s also the good part – we all are in this together.