Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and if you've missed all the hoopla surrounding it in the past week, you must have been making a conscious effort to avoid it.
I think anniversary commemorations are often predictable and forced: an obligatory look back and an assessment of how far we have — or haven't — traveled since whatever seminal moment.
But this has special resonance because the march changed our country's course. There's no question we've made progress in our long and tortured national slog toward racial and economic equality.
The percentage of blacks who graduate from college has risen dramatically. More than half of blacks lived in poverty back then, now it's one in four. But unemployment for blacks is still twice as high as for whites, and black families overall are less stable than before.
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My family is an example of how far this country has come. My parents grew up in southern towns where schools for colored children went only as far as eighth grade. They were able to send four children to college; among them a newspaper columnist and a law professor at Stanford.
So when will I stop wondering whether the content of my character really matters more to strangers than the color of my skin?
Maybe when I'm not held accountable for the misdeeds of black people I have never met. When Jesse Jackson isn't presumed to speak for me. When the very first thought I have after a national tragedy isn't "I hope the killer wasn't black," because I know somehow, in someone's mind, that will reflect on me.
This civil rights anniversary lands during what feels like a particularly tense passage in our journey toward racial reconciliation, when crime is the prism of our vision and blacks are on the hot seat.
We are, it seems, mighty angry at one another now; engaged in a national tit-for-tat over who is the victim and who's the oppressing force. It's hard to celebrate progress when we're busy name-calling, finger-pointing and shouting at one another.
A spate of nationally publicized violent crimes involving white victims and young black suspects has unleashed online rhetoric so vile that it would have been considered shameful even 50 years ago.
An 88-year-old World War II veteran was beaten to death outside a lounge in Spokane, Wash., last week. Two 16-year-olds have been charged with robbery and murder. The week before, a college baseball player from Australia was shot and killed while jogging in Duncan, Okla. Three teenagers, two black and one white, have been arrested. One of them told police they killed because they were bored.
My in box and online forums are suddenly overflowing with "you people" comments.
Some of the invective is angry backlash against public protests that likened the case of Trayvon Martin to a modern-day Emmett Till, the 14 year old tortured and lynched in 1955 in Mississippi. Some reflect smoldering resentment over the reality of a black man in the White House. Some suggest racial animus so illogical and deep that no marches or laws will dislodge it.
I've learned to consider online comments a minefield when I write about race. I cringe when I have to read them.
They tend to leave me angry and discouraged, wondering whether they reflect a small but prolific lunatic fringe or whether racists are everywhere, hiding in plain sight — maybe that nice man in line behind me at the market has a white hood in the trunk of his car.
My Saturday column bemoaned the lack of public outrage over the death of a college-bound black teenager from Crenshaw who was killed in what police suspect was a gang-related attack.
It drew the usual smattering of idiotic responses: Blacks are animals, liberals are dumb, no one is going to be upset unless Jesse Jackson tells us to.
News flash, folks: Jesse Jackson isn't the spokesman for a monolithic black America that doesn't even exist. Neither is Al Sharpton.
We don't need their news conferences to know that killing a stranger jogging by or beating an old man to death is horrifyingly wrong, no matter the skin color of the criminals or the victims.
Fifty years ago we were lucky to have compelling leaders who could marshal public opinion and plead our case to society; black folks were essentially voiceless. We didn't have the political clout to battle institutional racism and legalized segregation.
But the gains that we have made since then have elevated us beyond the need to rely on an industry of self-appointed leaders.
Yesterday's civil rights icons are largely irrelevant to the masses of young black people organizing on college campuses and in communities. Even middle-aged, middle-class folks like me have tired of that us-versus-them mentality.
That same political muscle that helped elect a black president ought to be used to pressure legislators to support our interests: broader access to higher education, affordable healthcare, decent housing, an equitable justice system and stable, well-paying jobs.
The problems that undermine us today are rooted in centuries of oppression, but dwelling on that won't fix them. I was heartened by the responses to my column from thoughtful readers who understand we all have a stake in solutions.
Police officers who deal with violence every day blamed too few jobs, too many guns and a culture that escalates conflict. Social workers and teachers relayed what they see: young mothers, absent fathers, abuse and neglect, children who don't feel valued or respected. And many black readers said that in their neighborhoods, a long epidemic of crack cocaine abuse created a generation of children who grew up without parents and are now struggling to raise their own troubled kids.
Solving those problems won't be as straightforward as eliminating poll taxes or integrating lunch counters. And the solutions won't come from men with stirring oratory and expensive suits.
The real leaders will be fathers who stick around and marry the mothers of their children; mothers who teach their children to respect themselves and one another; teachers, pastors, police officers, neighbors, professionals willing to reach back and mentor.
I don't know when the time will come that skin color doesn't matter. But let's find a way to work now on the content of our character.