What do you think about on Martin Luther King Day? Apparently if you’re like a lot of people I run across these days, not much. For many white people I find, Martin Luther King Day doesn’t apply for some reason. No question we’ve come a long way in this country. Legislated, institutional racism is, by and large a thing of the past. But at the same time I believe that Martin Luther King day challenges us to look in the mirror at our own racist convictions. To take a minute and ponder on what vestiges of prejudice and hate we have in our own hearts and minds, and work on dealing them.
But Sank, I don’t have any racist convictions. I’m not prejudiced.
So you say.
The most obvious institutions of racism are gone, but to plant the victory flag and say “See, there is no more racism in this country”, simply because you now share a public bathroom with black people is a bit premature.
My experience, our prejudices have changed, become more subtle perhaps and maybe in that subtly more entrenched than ever. More entrenched because now they’re in a place where to change has to come from within each individual, and that’s gonna be tough. It may be that we need a generation or two to die off and take their stereotypes and prejudices with them before we get to a society that is truely democratic and free. So, for this day, my observance is to challenge my readers to really consider their ideas of race, religion, orientation and put the question to yourself;
What do I think. How do I act.
MLK day seems to always throw up a warning shot or two among my white friends. I can’t count how many times I’ve been in a conversation with people around this time of year who consider themselves to be colorblind and not racist in anyway, but at the mention of the MLK holiday roll an eye, or comment that “well that’s not a big day at our house” and chuckle a bit. To think that this is anything except a demonstration of some inner prejudice is mistaken. There are too many folks who can’t see past the Civil Rights struggles championed by Dr. King as being an African American Issue, which then makes MKL day, in their minds a “black” holiday, and not a holiday of meaning to each and every one of us.
During the debates over making this day a federal holiday, the arguments against ranged from, “well now every group is going to want their special day” to the “Martin was a rabble rouser who was being tracked by the FBI..he had affairs behind his wife’s back, was a communist, he was a revolutionary bent on our destruction and not worthy of a holiday.” Politics aside, if you add “Muslim” and “Born in Indonesia” to the argument, you would have the same charges which we’re levied against a more recent successful Black man, and from the same sources. All are arguments to discredit the man and accentuate the differences in culture and race in order to dilute the message, a message that was a bitter pill for most of white America, and a pill we’re still working on swallowing.
Ignored in these arguments is the idea that Martin Luther King opened a door for everyone in this country who finds themselves disenfranchised, limited socially, or barred from certain benefits of citizenship, simply because they are black, Hispanic, Jewish, Catholic, Female, disabled, Gay, etc. He was not the first American champion of the inalienable rights of people to be full participants in the American experience. He was arguably the most articulate however, and the most successful, and as such this holiday is not only about Dr. King and his impact on our society, it is an acknowledgement of the ongoing struggle in this country to continue to improve ourselves and the lives of all our citizens, a struggle which continues to this day. It is also a celebration of the often understated or ignored contributions of minorities to the success of America and their dedication to enrichment and improvement of the American Experiment, an experiment in Democracy which continues to evolve.
Dr. Kings forced our country to address issues which we had, to that point, proved incapable of solving on our own. As evidenced by the stubborn persistence of the attitudes which brought us to that place where we needed to push these issues into America’s face and force change. It was and remains the right thing to do to question the morality of our social and economic systems when they are rigged against a segment of our citizenry and justice, true justice; leagle, moral and economic are denied.
There was a time when marriage between people of different races was illegal, and lynching was not. In Dr. Kings time people faced the fire hoses, the dogs and the KKK in their fight, easy enemies to identify and fight. Today it’s not so simple. The enemy today is attitudes and convictions. It manifests itself as court actions to arbitrarily invalidate legal precident about equal protection under the law. It shows up in the way schools are funded in this country, in how we register the poor to vote, how we staff our military, how we pick our sports teams and how we pay our employees. It shows up in family law, and equal pay for equal work. And it shows up in the arguments for and against universal health care, those that have it and those who do not.
When people blame job loss on “them” or complain about “fair” when they really mean “status quo”, it is present. Most disappointingly to me, it shows up when talk show hosts rally their supporters with angry diatribes to discredit the achievements of the civil rights struggle by attacking its leaders. They rally their listenership around just how different “they” are,but being careful to draw the line between the “good ones” who are the ones just like me, and the “ones I’m talking about” a weak attempt to demonstrate that prejudice isn’t at the heart of their arguments, when it is their sole arugment.
The institution of slavery and segregation has been well documented. In the 1920s, California passed laws which prohibited people born in Asia from owning land in the state, in World War II the Federal Government rounded up it’s native born citizens and put them in camps because their parents and grandparents were Japanese. In Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, an inner ring suburb is well known as a “Jewish” town, at one time nearly all its residents were Jews. Why? Because even in liberal Minnesota, until the 60′s houses sold in Minneapolis had covenants that prohibited the sale of properties to members of the “Hebrew race”. It was well into 70’s until Gay people were save from being arrested arbitrarily for no reason other than congregating to meet like minded people. Gay’s were subject to being summarily fired from their jobs, dismissed from Church and school, and considered to have a mental illness that could see them incaricrated in mental institutions. Attacking and harassing Gays had no consequences to the perpetrators and resulted in uncounted suicides as normal kids who were attracted to their sex came of age in world they assumed didn’t want them.
Today the same forces who were against de-segregation would suggest that hate crimes legislation isn’t needed, with remarkably similar arguments. “Its’ on the books already”, “what’s a hate crime and what isn’t?” This is a waste of our time. Even something as simple as an Anit-Lynching law, who would argue against that, well it could not be passed in the US Senate because of the objections senators who felt that it wasn’t “needed”. 5000 African Americans and their families between 1900 and 1965 would disagree. Hate crime law not needed? The families of Harvey Milk, Charles Howard, Mathew Shepard, J.R Warren, Sakia Gunn and hundreds of other this century; attacked and beaten, in many cases to death, for the simple crime of being Gay, they would disagree. In media meanwhile the pundits of hate have free access to the media to weave lies and misinformation which continues to divide this country. People like Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck, are creating a climate of hatred and mistrust, and then when something bad does happen? They wash their hands of any culpability for the climate they helped create.
How quick are we to listen to these guys and dismiss them as harmless windbags. How many times do you laugh a joke you hear among one group of friends.. but would be ashamed to repeat to your African American friends? How often do you reinforce stereotypes which cast people in one way or another, clever Asians, frugal Jews, great at sports, poor at driving, super lazy, 23 in a house and on and on.. And how many times.. and this certainly applies to me, do you hear some aged family member make some horrible comment or observation that deserves condemnation and distain, but you pass it off as “they’re old” and in doing so not only tolerate it, but teach your kids that while it’s wrong when you say it, its sort of OK when your beloved Grandpa says it.
Martin Luther King Day is a day that I think we should all stop for a minute, and consider the teachings of Dr. King. Remember his dream; work on putting aside your own prejudices against others. The good news.. I think we’re moving in the right direction. Kids today seem to be much more casual about race and religion. Americans with disabilities have access to the same things that the rest of do, and Gays and Lesbians , while not fully enfranchised yet, today enjoy more freedom to be out and be open then at any time in this history of this country. Is there still work do? Ask yourself what your reaction would be, and be honest, when your daughter or your son brings home a partner of another race, or of the same sex, or both. What would your reaction be? That’s probably, the place to start.
Happy Martin Luther King Day everyone.