Beyond consciousness, King's dream remains elusive

This year, toward the end of the second term of the first nonwhite president, Americans are experiencing the annual celebration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s life in the context of visible civil unrest.

The high-profile police killings of unarmed African-American men in recent months present us with an obligation to question the scope and magnitude of the progress we have witnessed since Emmett Till was brutally murdered (and his killers acquitted) in the summer of 1955.

Many of us have the day off work or school, and some will be engaged in acts of celebration or civil disobedience (or both) today.

At a minimum, we might stop to be thankful for Dr. King's leadership, vision and dedication to leaving the world (all too soon) a better place than he found it. But to what do we owe the struggle beyond that?

If this day is to mean more than mattress sales, we have to critically examine what it means to strive for social justice in the 21st century.

I often ask my students to consider what they might eventually lie to their grandchildren about. If we talk to white folks today who were living as adults in the segregated South in the 1950s, few of them will admit to having been in favor of discrimination at the time.

It is easy to believe that we would have been on the right side of history, but it is much harder to imagine how history will judge us. If our grandchildren ask in 2058 what we were doing in 2015, what will we say? Will we be proud, or will we have to reinvent ourselves in that moment to be consistent with what we have come to know and believe? Is there a way to push ourselves to confront these issues today?

As I detail in my most recent book, white Americans are advantaged over black and Latino Americans on almost every conceivable statistical measure.

Whether we consider educational opportunities, employment, treatment in the criminal justice system, housing, income and wealth, or heath, whites have an advantage. The existence of inequality is inarguable, as is its upward trajectory over the past 40 years.

Some will argue that it is both inevitable and warranted, and others will claim that it cannot be avoided without violating some fundamental principles of American democracy.

It is controversial to identify the reasons for this trend, though, because if we can we might feel compelled to address them. That will likely cause significant psychological discomfort, however, which most of us work hard to avoid.

This is one reason we continue to struggle as a nation with systemic racism so many years after most of us have rejected the interpersonal variety, striving to judge others not "by the color of their skin but on the content of their character."

In fact, most children born in the past 50 years were raised explicitly to not be prejudiced, yet a dramatically mounting collection of scholarly evidence shows that whites harbor latent negative associations about people of color (see, for example).

Emerging work from neuroscience laboratories over the past decade is revealing how our bodies respond in a preconscious fashion to race-based stimuli, which is contributing to the scientific evidence in support of nonconscious racism.

Understanding nonconscious bias helps to explain much of the persistence of racial discrimination. It is not important, for example, to demonstrate that police officers who kill unarmed black men are overtly bigoted; we need only understand that most Americans (and whites in particular) are more likely to be fearful of black men than white men or women, even if we consciously recognize that fear as irrational.

This recognition is valuable because it challenges the conceptualization of racism that allows well-meaning whites to not deal with it.

White Americans, at least in the aggregate, have disproportionate access to the levers of economic, social and political power, and while we truly desire to not be prejudiced, we still are. I am hopeful that scientific evidence will produce a nation of white people who will come to understand how the complexities of the human brain result in latent biases that work to perpetuate white supremacy, even against our best intentions.

This, combined with the challenge of systemic disadvantage, interferes with the potential realization of Dr. King's "dream" - a dream that requires the struggle that we must collectively and individually embrace, in all its discomfort, if we are serious about social justice.

• Stephen Maynard Caliendo is a professor of political science at North Central College in Naperville and chairman of the Human Thought and Behavior Division. He has written several books, including "Inequality in America: Race, Poverty, and Fulfilling Democracy's Promise;" "Race Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in U.S. Political Campaigns;" "Routledge Companion to Race & Ethnicity;" and "Teachers Matter: The Trouble with Leaving Political Education to the Coaches."

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