Something I saw on television this past week made me contemplate the subject of race in America.
It wasn’t a news show about the massacre of nine African Americans at a church in Charleston. Or the disclosure that the alleged murderer was 21-year-old gun wielding racist from the backwaters of South Carolina.
It most certainly wasn’t the inevitable talking heads earnestly disclosing their take on What It All Means.
It was a science show.
It’s called “Star Talk” and it’s moderated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of America’s most popular and visible scientists.
The subject of this particular episode was the future of NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration), where a budget squeeze has caused a justifiable uproar within the scientific community.
Tyson went straight to the top for answers by snagging an interview with the space agency’s top dog.
On one side of the desk sat Tyson, a Harvard-trained astrophysicist who earned a PhD from Columbia.
On the other side sat NASA’s administrator, Charles Bolden, a Naval Academy graduate, test pilot, astronaut and retired Marine Corps major general.
Both men are African American.
And it didn’t matter. It was an hour of two really smart guys talking about a subject of vital importance to us all.
Most of all, it was an example of what America should be, a place where people interact without labels.
But is it? Against the backdrop of riots, rogue cops and deranged white supremacists marching under the banner of the Confederate flag, can we really say there has been progress in this country toward racial harmony and equality?
A CBS News poll conducted last Spring found that while 59% of Americans — including 60% of whites and 55% of blacks — considered race relations in the U.S. to be generally good, about half (52%) thought there was real hope of ending discrimination altogether while 46% said there would always be a lot of prejudice and discrimination.
About six-in-ten blacks (61%) held the view that discrimination will always exist compared to 44% of whites.
At least we have moved the needle on race relations into positive territory.
I have long believed that, despite recent events and a sordid history, this country more than any other on the face of the earth can make racial harmony a reality and bring an end to discrimination. We have preached the gospel of equality from the halls of Congress to our houses of worship to our schools and workplaces. And most people listened.
Besides, if not us, who?
So I felt a certain satisfaction watching this “Star Talk” episode, knowing that this country, which has placed so many barricades in the paths of black citizens, could at the same time produce brilliant and accomplished people such as Tyson and Bolden.
It wasn’t easy. Tyson, a kid from the Bronx who became director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City, recalled about being interviewed about a plasma burst from the sun on a local Fox affiliate in 1989. "I'd never before in my life seen an interview with a black person on television for expertise that had nothing to do with being black.”
Bolden grew up in a segregated South Carolina. While in high school, he decided he wanted to attend Annapolis which required a letter of recommendation from a member of congress or a Senator. No elected official in South Carolina would write that letter because of Bolden’s race. Finally, a black congressman from Illinois took up his cause.
At the Naval Academy, Bolden graduated with a degree in electrical science, was president of his class and was commissioned as a Marine Corps officer. He went on to earn a graduate degree in systems management at USC.
As a naval aviator, he flew more than 100 sorties into North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, in the A-6A Intruder between June 1972 and June 1973.
These are exceptional human beings, of course. It would be wrong to think they represent the status of minorities in this country any more than Barack Obama or Denzel Washington or LeBron James do.
What about Joe or Jane Average African American Citizen?
The average three-member black household makes about 59 percent of what a similar white household makes — up from 55 percent in 1967 — but the income gap in actual dollars widened to $27,000 from $19,000, according to a story in the New York Times.
The median net worth of white households is 14 times that of black households, and blacks are nearly three times as likely to be living below the federal poverty threshold.
The disparity in homeownership rates is the widest in four decades. As the Pew study stated, those realities are recognized by most Americans, only 1 in 10 of whom said the average black person is better off financially than the average white person.
Indeed, a study by Stanford University found that poor whites tend to live in more affluent neighborhoods than do middle- class blacks and Latinos, a situation that leaves those minorities more likely to contend with weaker schools, higher crime and greater social problems.
In 1960, black men were five times as likely as white men to be in local, state or federal prison. More than fifty years later, black men are six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated.
So have we made progress? Some. Before you dismiss that, it’s important to remember where we started. As late as the 1960s, blacks in this country still couldn’t vote in many places, faced blatant discrimination in hiring, in housing, in education.
On an imaginary scale of 100 charting racial progress in this country, zero being worst, we may be close to 50 now. That’s improvement but clearly there’s still a long way to go.
It’s not 1950s Mississippi. But it’s not the fulfillment of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream, either.
Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com.