One hundred years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous speech saying, “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.”
Americans are familiar with this quote, and value its ideals. As a nation we have come a long way since slavery, but the racial injustice that permeates our society today — systemic discrimination, white privilege, racial profiling - prevents true freedom and the actualization of King’s dream. America is not just; it is still steeped in racism.
We are conditioned to racism, both overtly and unconsciously, within our families and by our history lessons. Institutional injustice reinforces our personal bias. Author Maya Angelou speaks of racism as a communal disease, “The plague of racism is insidious, entering into our minds as smoothly and quietly and invisibly as floating airborne microbes enter into our bodies to find lifelong purchase in our bloodstreams.”
Racism underlies our personal biases, but more importantly it underlies our governmental structures. It infiltrates our education, economic, and justice systems. Public schools with the highest percentage of black and latino students frequently don't offer fundamental academic resources. And the median income of black households is only half of their white counterparts’.
Denial perpetuates racism because we connect racism to white hoods and lynchings, images from the past. We deny it because it affords whites privilege and superiority. Racism is invisible to whites because it is a system of inequity that often benefits whites. Progress is impossible when denial prevails.
Though we have made progress with abolition and desegregation, recent racial injustices like poisoned water and police brutality make it difficult to see. Affirmative action and national discussions about racism provide hope, but much work remains.
Whites must recognize racial privilege, listen to people of color, and speak out against racism. But until our institutions reflect equal justice, it will be impossible to make substantial progress.
Renowned diversity trainer Jane Elliott says it best, “I’m a racist. I was infected with racism at birth... It’s going to take me the rest of my life to get over it, but I can do it, but I have to choose to do it.”
Editor's note: This commentary was adapted from the third place winner in the 2016 Hildene Lincoln Essay Competition for Vermont eighth graders. It was selected from a total of 237 entries from 39 Vermont schools, as far north as St. Albans and as far south as Bennington. This text was condensed and revised slightly for broadcast. You can find the original text and more information about the competition at Hildene.org or on the Hildene facebook page.