How Close Are We To Realizing King's 'Dream'?

The opening of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., comes at a time when it's hard to tell just how close we are to King's "dream." To help us appraise that, Robert Siegel speaks with Julian Bond, a veteran civil rights activist and former chairman of the NAACP.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: The opening of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial comes at a moment when it's hard to appraise progress toward Dr. King's dream. On the one hand, a black man is president of the United States, something that seemed impossible in the 1950s or '60s.

On the other hand, black unemployment today is about twice white unemployment and the financial crisis and recession have devastated the household net worth of minority groups. White net worth has dropped by 16 percent over the past four years, according to the Pew Research Group. For blacks, the decline is over 50 percent. White households today are 20 times wealthier than black households.

How much progress have we made as a country? Well, we're going to put that question to Julian Bond, longtime civil rights activist, former chairman of the NAACP, now a professor of history at the University of Virginia and visiting distinguished professor of government at American University in Washington, D.C. Julian Bond, welcome.

JULIAN BOND: Thank you.

SIEGEL: What do you make of those conflicting measures of progress toward integration, a black president and that yawning economic gap between whites and blacks? And I should add Hispanics, as well.

BOND: Well, it's odd. You know, the unemployment statistics you quoted are just a standard in black America. They're nothing new to black people. Black unemployment has always been, at least in my lifetime, twice unemployment rate for white people.

But the other statistics, the loss and wealth, is just staggering. That the steady climb into the middle class that many, many black people have made over the last several decades, that they've lost this grip on financial security is frightening and staggering.

SIEGEL: Some people read into the Tea Party's almost neuralgic reaction to government spending, a sense that white people figure black people benefit disproportionately from federal programs. Do you suspect a racial subtext to that whole argument?

BOND: Absolutely. And I'm not saying that all of the Tea Party members are racist. Not at all. I don't think anybody says that. But I think there's an element of racial animus there and the feeling that some white people have that these black people are now getting something that I'm not getting and I should be getting it, too.

SIEGEL: Today, with a black president in office, is there still a need for explicitly black leadership? And if so, what kinds of leaders are needed?

BOND: Well, I think the kinds of leaders that we have, as well as others, of course there's a need for them, just as Hispanics, women and other groups that find themselves marginalized in today's society need effective spokespersons. And black America is fortunate enough to have had and to have today an effective group of such people.

You think of the heads of the organizations - the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the National Urban League - these sorts of people, as well as the myriad numbers of local leaders, pastors, business people and so on, who sprung to the floor and who lead the charge against the discrimination that afflicts their group. Of course, you need these people.

SIEGEL: The Congressional Black Caucus, which has been conducting a jobs tour, highlighting black unemployment, the need for more jobs for all Americans, has been pretty rough on President Obama for his more recent focus on balancing the budget. What do you make of that conflict?

BOND: Well, it's this great tension between President Obama's race and the expectation by many black people that he is our president and the expectation by others, who are both black and not black, that he's the president of everyone. And the difficulty he's had balancing that in the public perception. Is he the black president? Is he the president of black people? Is he president of everybody?

I think he wants badly to be the president of everyone, so I think it's a terrible tension for him.

SIEGEL: Do you think he is actually less vocal in support of an explicitly black political agenda because he is black than, say, had Hillary Clinton been elected president instead might have been?

BOND: I do think that's true. I think he's taken care to not be perceived as the president of black people. I think he thinks it would be harmful to his presidency. It would hurt him in other ways. He would be thought of as a single issue president and he badly does not want that to happen.

SIEGEL: Do you think he's right about that?

BOND: I think he probably is right about that. I want to hear him say more about this black/white gap, this divide, this economic divide. I want to see him act more, but I understand why he doesn't. I just want him to do it.

SIEGEL: Well, Julian Bond, thanks a lot.

BOND: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Former chairman of the NAACP, a longtime civil rights activist, Julian Bond.

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