In this prosperous country, where the American Dream is so vividly on display, it would seem there is no place for poverty and disillusionment. But for millions of people of color in this nation, hardship and despair are the reality.
Despite years of attention to the achievement gap, African American 12th-graders continue to perform at about the level of White ninth-graders in reading and math. In health care, African Americans are far more likely to rely on hospitals and clinics — frequently missing the primary and preventive care often available to White Americans. Blacks are underrepresented in our universities and boardrooms and overrepresented in our prisons.
Slavery and colonialism have, over the years, worked seamlessly to ensure that many people of color start a couple of rungs down on the ladder to success. Many have had to adapt to make the best out of very bad situations, with a worthwhile result: successful sons and daughters.
That is the good news. Today, 30 percent of Black households fall in the middle income range — a big jump since 1967, when about 20 percent did. And the portion of Black households making $75,000 to $99,999 jumped nearly fourfold between 1967 and 2003.
It is these Black professionals, whose ancestors fought bravely to overcome class and racial hurdles, who are now competing with the very best in the world.
And, if the civil rights movement is to adapt to the needs of our times and move forward full steam, it is these growing numbers of Black professionals who must lead it. There is simply no alternative.
Black professionals in America would do well to remember first that they are exceptions to the rule, and second, that they did not become successful on individual effort alone. I myself would not be in a position to write this article had it not been for those who resisted slavery, fought Jim Crow, championed civil rights and resisted colonialism.
It literally took a village to get me where I am. And today, it still takes a village. To believe otherwise is to undervalue the sacrifices of the generations who came before us. Many Black professionals currently enjoying great success are out of touch with reality if they believe that they have equal access to the American Dream.
Our ultimate mission is clear: We must shift the imbalance between haves and have-nots. We must close the disparities in education, health care, criminal justice, economic power and civic engagement.
This is not a call to arms — it is a call to minds and hearts — but the need to act is urgent. Beginning today, we must chart a new course and embark on a new, less dramatic civil rights march: Black professionals must be willing to reach out to the young people in their communities so that dropout rates of 50 percent are replaced with high school graduates.
The role of historically Black colleges and universities as fountains of knowledge for Black professionals in the United States and over the world must be reclaimed.
With AIDS killing Black men, women and children at increasing rates — and too many Black Americans digging our graves with our knives and forks — Black professionals must recommit to health care and fitness.
It's time to hold corporations accountable for hiring and advancing people from the Black community. Firms must be pressured into buying products and services from minority-owned companies. And so should we.
Finally, we simply must turn out to vote. I just witnessed the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 2006, protecting our right to vote for another 25 years. It is now incumbent upon each of us to exercise that right on Election Day.
The iconic images of marches on Birmingham and Washington may be relegated to history now — but the need for a vigorous marching spirit in every man and woman of color remains alive and well.
Bruce Gordon is president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.