One of the most often-quoted, and the most poignant, moments in Martin Luther King Jr.’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech was his stated wish that “my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
As the nation marked the 50th anniversary this week of King’s speech, there has been much reflection on the progress made, and that still to be achieved, since he spoke those words.
When we talk about the civil rights movement, and the progress that has been made, we talk a lot about institutions. We talk about the civil rights legislation that was passed not long after King’s death. The Supreme Court’s recent action to strike down portions of the Voting Rights Act has put that issue back on the table in a big way. And the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case prompted a lot of talk, too.
Martin’s death prompted many black writers to recall “the talk” — a conversation parents have with children to introduce them to racial discrimination. “The talk” warns children that the color of their skin may one day pose a problem for some people; that their actions, or even their presence, can create tensions for people of other races. It is a sad commentary on the state of our nation, and on the status of Dr. King’s dream, that such talks are so commonplace.
White parents, by and large, are not having “the talk” with their children. But we should. Never mind that the conversation would go somewhat differently.
In 2006, Birgitte Vittrup attempted to conduct a study to find out if white children’s attitudes about race changed after having explicit conversations with their parents about racial differences. However, the study was derailed when only six of the 100 families actually had the conversations they were directed to have. Five other families quit when they were told what the study entailed.