Sunday, January 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Large / Times staff columnist

King Day reminds us of successes, but we're not done yet

This is a different country than it was when Martin Luther King Jr. called on the United States to look into its soul and make its reality match its ideals.

Today there is a thriving black middle class. Just last year, Oprah became the first black woman billionaire, and magazine covers featured black executives at some of America's largest corporations. Two black people are helping formulate U.S. foreign policy.

Black actors win Academy Awards, black astronauts fly for NASA.

We live in a society that is better and in some ways more complex than the one in which King labored.

A more tolerant society has yielded increased opportunities for women and for Native Americans, handicapped Americans, Americans whose family roots are in Asia or Latin America, and new immigrants from Latin America and Asia whose increasing numbers have changed the face of the United States.

For most of American history, the place of black people in the nation has been a major issue, from slavery through Jim Crow and into the present. The place of Native Americans has also been a national issue, though for much of my lifetime it has been dealt with in the background, emerging only when some particular issue takes fire.

Mexican Americans have a long history in what is now the United States, but until recently it was played out mostly in the West and particularly in the Southwest. Similarly, Puerto Ricans and Cubans were politically significant in New York and Florida, but not much elsewhere.

Asian Americans were present in relatively small numbers, and mostly on the West Coast and in Hawaii.

Things are different now. Mexican-American immigrants aren't settling just in the Southwest but all over the country, and they are joined by significant numbers of immigrants from other Latin-American countries.

Asian Americans are spreading around too, and they are more diverse. It's not just the Philippines, Japan and China, but Americans from Cambodia, Vietnam and elsewhere.

There are more mixed-race Americans than ever, and the trend is up.

Rich black people live in gated communities in Atlanta, and black spending power has risen above $630 billion.

But that's not the end of the story. We need this holiday to remind us there is more to be done; that we have inherited some ills from the country that used to be.

Black workers are paid less than equally qualified white workers, and black people are arrested more often and given longer sentences than white people who commit comparable crimes. Latinos are similarly discriminated against.

Schools are more segregated today than they were 30 years ago, and most of them do a poor job of educating black and Latino young people. Black and Latino people are charged more for car loans than similarly qualified white people and denied more often when they apply for housing loans.

Today's discrimination is subtler and hard to confront directly, but is no longer an iron barrier to success. And yet, too many black people have given up on themselves and on society.

It's time to put away self-defeating definitions of what it means to be black.

My son has paid little attention to race until now, but in middle school he's seeing young people exploring the differences that are supposed to define various groups. The differences also show up in movies, video games, music, just about everywhere a double-digit-age kid looks.

My son did a demonstration for his parents last month. First, he showed us how a certain kind of African-American student walks down the hallway at his middle school. He tugged down his jeans, put on his best frown, flexed his fledgling biceps and put some juice in his walk.

Then, he showed us how a white student who wants to be black walks. The clothes stay the same, but his expression changes and so does his gait, which becomes much faster than before. He looks like Gomer Pyle trying to suppress a smile.

Both re-enactments are stereotypical, and both are based on real observations. We couldn't help laughing because he's a good mime, and because we recognize the characters, but the stereotypes don't apply to most kids. They do, however, reflect what this society expects people to be, and some kids will try to live up, or down to the expectations.

Where do you fit in, we asked our son? He shrugged. His walk is just a walk. He's not sure where he is supposed to fit in. I'm glad he has the freedom to step around the remnants of those old iron walls. I hope he'll figure it out for himself and not let stereotypes decide.

It will be sometime yet before character trumps color across the board, before we reach that social sweet spot in which skin color has only as much meaning as eye or hair color.

Maybe we'll even come to a place where we notice those differences, but don't let them outweigh character, or dictate behavior.

Getting there is the challenge left to us.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or More columns at

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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