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Where Do We March From Here? Psychologists’ Perspectives on Advancing the Dream

Where do we march from here

By Efua Andoh (Public Interest Communications Staff)

On August 28, tens of thousands of Americans from every walk of life gathered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial. Various speakers, including Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama, gave stirring speeches reflecting on the legacy left by Dr. King and those intrepid marchers via the Civil Rights Movement. While all of them marveled at the significant progress the nation has made, every speaker at the podium acknowledged that Dr. King’s “Dream” remains to be fully realized.

We asked a number of APA members for their perspectives on how much further we have to go toward true equality and freedom for all of America’s citizens.

Ruth Riding-Malon, PhD (Member, APA Committee on Socioeconomic Status)

Racism and classism have moved from being an overt societal disease to being a covert one. Many are not aware of being affected by attitudes of judgment or fear towards other groups. And yet, even though few people discriminate openly, many think in terms of “those people…”

I am reminded of the 10 commandments.  The first 9 commandments, like the laws of our land, rule our behaviors – thou shalt not lie, steal or kill. The 10th commandment however, tells us that we are not even supposed to want to do any of those things. It shows the motivation of our inner being and how we fall short!

I love that Dr. King’s speech prescribes the remedy: “I have a dream that one day…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls”. Research and experience agree that the way to heal our racism and classism – even the 21st century covert kind – is to spend time with people from other groups. So that we, and our children, learn that the dream is still alive and how it can become our personal and national reality.

Cynthia Hudley, PhD (Member, APA Committee on Socioeconomic Status)

In marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s marvelous articulation of our dream for America, one wonders how well this country has realized that dream?  On the one hand, the 1963 march was racially diverse, a very positive sign of the nation united.  On the other hand, 1963 saw the bombing murder of four little girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, an act of racial terrorism that came literally days after the historic march.  Thus, as Dickens says, “it was the best of times and the worst of times.”  In our times, the 2013 march attendees were far less racially diverse, and the rhetoric heard at the march was chillingly familiar (jobs, justice, voting rights).  The country has gained a Black president but lost a key section of the Voting Rights Act.  Black Americans find some doors more open to them but must watch their children stereotyped, stopped and frisked, yes even murdered, by those in authority and those who only think they are authorities.  The country initiated bold strides toward that dream 50 years ago but lately has been sliding back into a racial polarization that threatens to erase past advances.

Helen Neville, PhD (Chair, APA Committee on Ethnic Minority Affairs)

The landmark 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom brought issues of racial oppression and the need for civil rights to the forefront of American politics.  Coming from diverse perspectives, organizers of the March united around the need for key legislation to promote racial equality in schools, jobs/labor, and all sectors of society. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act emerges from this context as does the various “power” movements (e.g., Black, Red, women, etc.).  This push for self-determination and racial pride in addition to racial equality resulted in a number of critical changes and transformations in American society. Yet, racial antipathy and inequality persists in all sectors of contemporary American life – health, jobs, schools, housing, interpersonal relationships, etc.

Has the dream of racial equality been realized? While the US has witnessed gains in terms of civil rights and addressing racial injustices, we have yet to reach a color-blind society in which race does not matter. Unfortunately, race still matters in terms of access to quality education and health care; race matters in terms of who gets sent to prison and one’s earning potential; race matters in terms of interpersonal relationships.

The 50th anniversary of the March provides us an opportunity to reflect on the “dream.” It is not so much as the “dream” is dead, but rather new dreams are needed to capture the vision of racial justice within current realities. We still need an increase in the minimum (living) wage; we still need to eliminate school segregation in which Black and brown children are overrepresented in overcrowded and underresourced schools; we still need job training programs for the unemployed. But, we need so much more to ensure that all people have the same opportunities for dignity and freedom in the broadest sense.

What role can psychologists play in moving toward racial justice?

We can (re)commit ourselves to learning more about:

  1. injustices in our community and nation,

  2. empirical research documenting the ill-effects of racial oppression and its intersection with other forms of discrimination on people of color; and

  3. local efforts to challenge racist practices/policies.

We can also conduct research or support the research of others on proven effective racism-prevention/reduction interventions.

We want to hear from you! Tell us in the comments:

  1. What do you think the next steps are in advancing the “Dream” of true equality and freedom for all Americans?

  2. What can psychologists and other social scientists do to confront and counteract ongoing bias and prejudice?

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