A spectator watches a float along Greenwood Avenue during the annual parade celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. in Tulsa. Cory Young / Tulsa World file
Martin Luther King Jr. Day — the national holiday to celebrate the life of our greatest civil rights leader — has become a traditional time for taking stock of race relations in the United States.
King Day 2010 brings with it sharp contrasts in this regard.
On the national level, the two dominant stories of the past year — the recession and the continuing war on terrorism — had a disproportionately painful impact on African-Americans.
While the nation's unemployment rate stands at 10 percent, the rate for black Americans is 16.2 percent. While in white America there is some hope for recovery — the portion of the white population holding jobs improved by 0.3 percentage points in December — but the situation continues to deteriorate in black America, where the unemployment numbers went up by 0.6 percentage points.
Meanwhile, a September analysis of military casualties shows that 17.3 percent of the men who have died in the line of duty since 1980 (and 26.6 percent of the women) were black. That rate is disproportionate to the black population in the nation and substantially higher than death rates of black members of the military in the Vietnam and Korean wars.
All of those statistics can be summed up with this: As in Martin Luther King's day, blacks continue to make up a disproportionate share of the nation's economic underclass, making them more susceptible to the harsh impacts of an economic decline or a military conflict.
Locally, the statistics haven't caught up with the time. All the reports available predate the recession, but there's no reason to conclude that bad news hasn't been worse for the black community in Oklahoma, just as it has been elsewhere in the nation.
In 2008, the latest report available from the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, the black unemployment rate in the state was 8.7 percent, compared to 2.9 percent for whites.
In 2006, minority households in Oklahoma had a net worth of about $6,000, compared to $60,000 for white households, according to an October report from the Assets and Opportunity Scorecard.
On the other hand, there are encouraging individual signs for black America.
Our nation's president is a black man. So is the federal government's top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Eric Holder. So is the titular head of the Republican Party, Michael Steele and the actor Hollywood routinely turns to for the personification of God, Morgan Freeman.
While broad statistics show troubled times for African-Americans, there is no shortage of anecdotal evidence of individual black achievement at the highest levels.
This reflects the story of Martin Luther King Jr., too.
At a time when blacks were discriminated against as a matter of law, King achieved unparalleled greatness. He inspired a nation to change its bigoted ways, won a Nobel Peace Prize and had a national holiday set aside in his honor.
But King's dream wasn't of individual achievement. He spoke of a time when all of God's children would be judged by the content of their character.
The notable achievements of individual black Americans is not sufficient evidence that the dream has been achieved.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2010 finds America and Oklahoma still falling short of the dream, but no less committed to someday achieving it.
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