When the words of an iconic young black minister from Georgia hit American ears, it signaled the crossing of the Rubicon on the question of civil rights—the die was cast, and there was no way for the country to go except into the future. Quoted (and misquoted) countless times since, Martin Luther King Jr’s words struck both sides of the American racial consciousness, both forcing white listeners to grapple with the pernicious reality of systemic racism and reminding nonwhite listeners that the promises of America belonged to them even if the current system failed to realize it. Seizing those promises was not merely some self-help doctrine but a clear moral imperative.
Though America’s checkered past has taken years to overcome (and in certain ways the battle isn’t over), there ought to be no denying that we’ve made historic progress. Sixty years since the country was introduced to Dr. King’s dream, the promises of that dream have indeed spread, albeit imperfectly, through this country across racial, social, and cultural lines.
America’s race problem has gotten better. So why are we so divided? The modern American racial divide does not manifest via water fountains or bus seats, but over the extent of solutions for the racism that remains. This divide is a racial one in many ways: based on 2022 Pew data, a majority of black Americans see the main source of remaining American racism to be structural, whereas the majority of Americans generally view modern racism as being primarily on an individual basis. Predictably, this divide also follows party lines: while 19 percent of Republicans are willing to say there is no anti-Black racism in our society, only 3 percent of Democrats are willing to say the same.