The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act closed a very long chapter in Americas’ history; a chapter which chronicled the burden of slavery and institutionalized discrimination, of segregated schools and public accommodations on the very soul of African American life. A chapter in which the foundation of America—freedom and equality—was rocked by water hoses, police dogs and racism.
But, those who struggled with the burden of changing America’s heart also knew passage would open a new chapter for America. A chapter we are still writing today; a chapter steeped in empowerment, opportunity and equality.
Every day we challenge the narrative about what it means to be black in America. That’s why the idea of the American dream is so important in helping us right that narrative. Its very nature invokes different images of not only what it means to be an American, but what success is in America.
This generation of black talent—politically, economically, socially—are leaders among dreamers. They are risk takers among managers and owners. What they decide together, what they say in unison, what they demand of our political representatives, what their successes and failures demonstrate, by word and example, tells the watching world what it is to be black in America; how we embrace the American Dream.
Our story, our history is more than an image on the nightly news or sounds from the latest hip-hop anthem or even the signing of another big sports contract. It is the story of generations of men and women who risked it all—for a dream.
Like so many generations before us, we all stand in the shadow of those who fought and sacrificed; suffered and ultimately triumphed so that we would be free to pursue that dream. They are what made our generation possible. So it becomes important that we no longer allow the dumbing-down of our history to a sound bite or to 28 days in February.
We’ve journeyed far—from slavery to emancipation; from Jim Crow to the White House—and most of us have freely chosen our path.But not all. This journey, despite its success and historic accomplishments, also belies an accomplished agenda.
I recently read a description of the state of black America. In it the author noted:
“the [black] baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the nation in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing a high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is 7 years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much.”
The American dream for many African Americans begins to look a little nightmarish, especially when you consider that this assessment was given by President John F. Kennedy in the summer of 1963.
And here we sit 48 years later and there remain radical disparities in each of these indicators. For example, the rate of unemployment for blacks today (16.2 percent) is still almost twice the national average (9.2). 48 years later, studies show that 45 percent of black males ages 15-24 will more than likelyend up unemployed, incarcerated or dead. In fact, there are more black males in prison or on parole than were enslaved before the Civil War began. 48 years later, the rise of incarceration and unwed pregnancies among black girls and women are having a devastating impact on the Black community as a whole.
And yet, 48 years later we also celebrate the election of an African American president; and the emergence of a Black middle class—truly free to pursue the American dream. So why are so many AfricanAmericans failing to prosper in this freedom? The cruel truth is that for many African Americans the American dream—or any dream for that matter—remains elusive.
We are no longer enslaved by the shackles or chains that bound our hands and feet 150 years ago, but rather by the shackles of poor education, the chains of joblessness, the whip of drug addiction, the choke-hold of poverty and the vestiges of separate-but-equal — not just in the classroom but in the boardroom as well. And more often than not, today we find ourselves enslaved not by the hands of others but by our own hands.
Our 21st century reality is simply this: it’s time to stand for something different.
The debate we’re having (if we’re even having one) is no longer productive. It’s time for solutions that come from us, from within our house, our family and ultimately our community as a whole.
During the Jim Crow days, did we wait for someone to drive us to the polls? No, we demanded unfettered access to the road. Did we ask others to take the spelling test for our children in the white schools? No, we fought to clear the path to the schoolhouse door so our children could access the classroom like everyone else.
Generations before us struggled and died to protect our right to possess freedom. Our parents and grandparents marched on Washington to demand our right to take ownership of the liberties that other Americans took for granted.
But now, ours is the generation that must cement into the foundation of this nation our unalienable right to pursue happiness. It’s time to place our faith in each other and focus on the upward mobility that is anchored by the legacy wealth that is first created and then passed on to the next generation. Whether it’s the purchase of a new home or starting a new business, legacy wealth creation is the one path we can all take together.
We are the post-civil rights generation of Americans who have moved from taking a seat at the lunch counter to taking ownership of the diner. This generation of black men and women represent our best chance to ensure ownership for the emerging African American middle class, and the creation of legacy wealth.
That’s the legacy we all want. That’s what freedom promises. That’s the American Dream.