Essay: A racially challenging week in America

Thursday - 6/27/2013, 4:02pm EDT

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Take a glance at the anniversary calendar this year and it's clear that in America, racial progress comes in fits and starts.

The Emancipation Proclamation declared slaves to be free 150 years ago. Within a decade, a trio of amendments to the Constitution made them citizens. Over the next century, the Supreme Court and Jim Crow segregation in the South snatched their rights away, Medgar Evers was murdered trying to get them back, and Martin Luther King Jr.'s populist protests yielded laws that restored them before King, too, was killed.

Less than a year ago, the nation re-elected its first black president -- a step widely considered the culmination of all this labor. President Barack Obama, the product of integration with an Ivy League education, was sent to the White House by a diverse American electorate, and presides over a country where people are free to live, work, play, go to school and marry regardless of race, things that by no means were guaranteed 50 years ago.

Yet in this week alone, a series of events illustrated just how fragile that progress really is.

The Supreme Court chipped away at that King-inspired voting rights law and others on job discrimination and affirmative action, then punted them to Congress to fix -- a very divided Congress that has accomplished little since President Barack Obama first took office and which includes GOP conservatives who want to avoid voting on whether those who came to the U.S. illegally should become citizens.

This and other events percolating in American culture -- George Zimmerman's trial in Florida for shooting to death black teenager Trayvon Martin, and celebrity chef Paula Deen's career meltdown because of her past use of the N-word -- amounted to a gut punch for many, prompting questions about what exactly is going on.

"It's so troubling for me, who has sort of bridged many, many years of social change, and to not see an end to this, I find it really nauseating," said Suzy Post, 80, of Louisville, Ky., a white woman who has worked for civil rights causes since the 1950s and is now a member of the state's Human Relations Commission.

Those sentiments were echoed Tuesday by a visibly shaken collection of black and Hispanic members of Congress who bemoaned the fresh blows to the laws that helped to put many of them in office.

"The issue of race, slavery -- it's our original sin as a nation," said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who as a student activist was severely, and repeatedly, beaten in the voting rights struggle of the 1960s. "It's going to take years and maybe a generation before we end it. It's a long, ongoing struggle. It's the struggle of more than a lifetime."

Where strides toward equality once were met by fire hoses or head-cracking blows from billy club-wielding police, now they can elicit racist commentary on Twitter, such as the hateful barrage over the national anthem being sung by Sebastien De La Cruz, a young Mexican-American, during the National Basketball Association finals. Or they generate oddly placed outrage, such as criticisms of a Cheerios commercial that depicted a white mother, a black father and their biracial child.

"What I believe is happening is that while the country's demographic and age is changing rapidly, we as a nation have hit racial fatigue," said Maria Teresa Kumar, co-founder of Voto Latino. "We no longer want to discuss race, and we like to believe that we're above it. We are not."

Briana Bacon, 20, of Philadelphia, put it more bluntly.

"I think they're shutting down opportunities for minorities, and I think minorities are in a (expletive) place to begin with," said Bacon, who is black and recently enlisted in the National Guard.

Civil rights leaders are unwilling to say that things today are as bad as they were in King's heyday. But they acknowledge that there are some uncanny parallels at play. Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said that in the first four months of this year, restrictive voting bills were introduced in more than half the states.

"I don't question whether Dr. King's dream remains viable. What one questions is whether the nation has the commitment to freedom, justice and equality of opportunity for all on a broad basis. What we currently see in the country is a tension," Morial said.

Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, recalled that King's widow, the late Coretta Scott King, once observed that freedom is never really won in full; every generation must win it anew.