CJTC — The Center for Justice, Tolerance & Community University of California, Santa Cruz
CJTC — The Center for Justice, Tolerance & Community



Dr. King’s dream will live on if…

By Manuel Pastor
Santa Cruz Sentinel
January 21, 2001

In my study at home hangs a photo of Martin Luther King. Seated at his desk, finger to his brow, he seems pensive, locked in thought about a future he was never to see. As his birthday passes each year, I always wonder where he and we would be if he had lived, particularly given his attempt, late in his journey in leadership, to lift up the issues of economic as well as social injustice.

Significant progress, particularly in attitudes, has been made since King passed. Last year’s election saw the first Jewish candidate nominated by a major party for the vice presidency, and our new Republican president has appointed a Cabinet whose ethnic diversity rivals that of President Clinton’s first Cabinet. At the same time, precious little has been accomplished on many of the issues that affect the real chances of people of color.

Despite the recent recovery, one-third of black and Latino children live below the poverty line, and over one-third of U.S. Latinos lack access to health insurance. Home ownership rates, a marker of passage to the middle class, are 25 percentage points lower for African-Americans and Latinos than they are for whites, and the gap worsened during the real estate-crazed 1990s. Education in our inner cities remains in crisis, with schools frequently lacking experienced staff, adequate resources, and safe conditions. Welfare reform has reduced the number receiving public assistance but left many families stranded in low-wage jobs.

The social panorama presents its own challenges. The federal government reports that nearly 7 percent of the black male population is serving time in federal or state prisons or local jails. Racial profiling runs the gamut from urban teenagers stopped by police in Los Angels to Chinese-American scientists accused of spying in Los Alamos. Hate crimes are alarmingly high, with synagogues marred by swastikas and racial and sexual minorities targeted for violence. Even access to clean air and water is unequal: recent research has suggested sharp differences in exposures to environmental hazards for African-Americans, Latinos and Asians, particularly in the state of California.

There is a tendency in Santa Cruz to be a bit smug about the rest of the nation and its failures in addressing these issues. Surely, we who pride ourselves on diversity and acceptance can hardly take the blame for the attitudes and policies that perpetuate obvious racial inequities. But if we understand the place where King was headed at the end of his life to a new framework that went past a simple black-white paradigm, anticipated the emergence of a complex multicultural American, and stressed the importance of real material progress then we equally have a long way to go.

We are, for example, a region whose fortunes are divided between a job-starved Watsonville, a sales tax-rich Capitola, and an emerging Silicon Valley extension in Santa Cruz. Our politics hone in sharply on the problems of homelessness but pay little heed to developing decent day labor sites for those who can find work only at the margins of the market. We celebrate our commitment to the environment but have failed to push for the denser housing development that would both respect open space and provide affordable residences for those families struggling to stay here.

There is cause for hope. Last year’s coming together to facilitate the building of a new high school in Watsonville, a task that required compromises from both environmentalists and ethnic leaders, was a step toward a new approach. The severity of the housing crunch is compelling those who have fought in the past about development and density to look for new common ground. Employers, county officials, and community leaders, recognizing that the region will slip if we stick with a mix of low-wage tourism and agriculture, are increasingly interested in job training and upgrading. Throughout the county, education, the linchpin for successful participation in both civic life and the economy, is the focus of new collaborative efforts by dedicated parents, teachers and principals.

What we do here can set a real example for the rest of California and the nation. In the upcoming weeks, we at the university will be collaborating on three events that can further the dialogue: Kweisi Mfume, former congressman and current head of the NAACP speaking at the annual Martin Luther King convocation; a “Race Rave” designed to bring together students and others for two days to talk about racial reconciliation in Santa Cruz; and an evening session on “The New Organizing for Social Justice in California” with labor leader Amy Dean, environmental justice advocate Carlos Porras, and former Black Panther and now economic justice organizer, Anthony Thigpenn.

All these events share an underlying theme: If King’s legacy is to be honored every day and not just once a year, then we must move beyond a celebration of our diversity and difference. The civil rights issues of the new century — land use, job training, health insurance, judicial reform, basic wage standards, environmental equity, and educational reform — are complicated and the solutions do not lend themselves to easy slogans. But this is the hard and complex work to which we are now called: To build real community in the 21st century requires that we craft policies and politics that work in concrete ways for all our residents.


Manuel Pastor is director of the Center for Justice, Tolerance, and Community, a new research, education, and policy institute at the University of California, Santa Cruz.