On February 1, 2023

Reflecting on Dr. King’s dream

By Mary E. Mendoza

Editor’s note: Mary E. Mendoza is an assistant professor of history and Latino/a Studies at Penn State University. She lives in Weybridge.

Because I teach about the history of race in America, I often ponder the differences between equity and equality. In addition, the start of my current semester teaching Latino History coincides with our national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. All of which is to say that race, equality and equity are never far from my mind in the beginning of any given January. 

Dr. King is frequently remembered for his “I Have a Dream” speech. The major take-away people tend to get from that speech and from Dr. King is that he dreamed his children would “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.” In short, people associate Dr. King and his dream with the notion of equality, or the idea that all people would be treated as equals. 

That was certainly part of Dr. King’s dream. When he delivered his inspiring and impassioned speeches and sermons, I am sure Dr. King did dream of a world in which unarmed black, brown, and native folks were not brutally killed at the hands of police in much higher numbers than their white counterparts. I am sure that he dreamed of a world where students of all backgrounds saw themselves reflected in their teachers and the media in equal measure. I am sure he dreamed of a world with equal access to education. 

I am not sure Dr. King dreamed of a world where BIPOC people earned the same incomes as their white counterparts for the same jobs. 

I am a Latina living in a very progressive, very white state. I love Vermont, but certain populations here, particularly the more privileged, can seem like their own little bubble of ignorance. I say this with love, but occasional frustration. 

Two days after MLK Day I found myself in a conversation with some lovely folks who see themselves as incredible allies — and in many ways, I am sure they are. In it, they explained to me that if we could just close the wage gap between top and bottom and pay everyone the same wages, it would solve all of our problems. Women wouldn’t earn more than men. White men and women wouldn’t earn more than their BIPOC colleagues. I have had this same conversation countless times over the past two decades living in this state with myriad people and it always surprises me how people here seem to obfuscate the core of King’s dream — a dream that I know these same Vermonters actually share with him and with me. 

Equality is not equity. Dr. King made this point repeatedly. He argued that while white Americans were acquiring free land in the American West, Black Americans, Asians, and Latinos were cultivating that land with zero or little compensation. Once freed, the formerly enslaved received no compensation. Dr. King argued that white Americans “never stop to realize a debt they owe.” He maintained that while generational wealth accumulated for many white Americans, generational oppression wreaked havoc on the African American community as well as other BIPOC groups. 

In short, his point was that equality was and is not enough. If you put everyone on an equal plane today, those with generational wealth will still come out ahead. True equity and investment in diversity means compensating BIPOC folks beyond normal pay ranges for a while to allow them to catch up. It is reparations for African Americans. It is understanding that a Latino/a/x person pulling themselves out of poverty is a huge achievement, and one that should be rewarded. It is returning native land, repatriating indigenous possessions and bodies, and truly recognizing and respecting native sovereignty. For different minoritized groups, reparations would look different, as the paths toward dispossession, exploitation, and exclusion have not been the same for each of them.

Equity gets us closer to justice, which was a critical aspect of King’s dream. Until this critical difference is widely understood and accepted, we will never be able to realize King’s ideal of racial justice. For those living in poverty because of these historical patterns of generational disparity, equality will never be attainable until we go through an extended period of radical, equitable practices that allow historically oppressed groups to make up for lost time. 

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