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Martin Luther King, Jr.: How would American life be different without him?

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“There are lots of whites, Latinos, and African Americans themselves who thought that with the election of Barack Obama, we had ventured into an America without racism,” says history professor Maghan Keita, director of Villanova’s Institute for Global Interdisciplinary Studies. “Yet, here we are, four decades after King, with encampments in public places still calling for the kind of equality he was after.”

President Obama has weighed in with his official proclamation of the federal holiday.

“On a hot summer day nearly half a century ago, an African American preacher with no official title or rank gave voice to our Nation's deepest aspirations, sharing his dream of an America that ensured the true equality of all our people,” says the presidential declaration. “From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired a movement that would push our country toward a more perfect Union.”

Interviews with scholars, academics, and sociologists across the country show that assessment under question.

“For most whites the playing field has been leveled and what has cemented this perception in the psyche of most whites was the election of a black president,” adds Dr. Charles Gallagher, Chair of the Sociology Dept. at La Salle University, who studies race and ethnicity. Yet, he adds in an email, “the social science data is unequivocal: institutional racism continues to shape the life chances of racial minorities in America. We have not reached the promised land MLK talked about, but much of white America now believes we have.”

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