Reflections on MLK Day

17 Jan

Okay, here comes the heresy. I was not a big MLK fan in his life. I admire him much more now, but his personal view of the way to social justice and mine were not always congruent. We all know that MLK and Malcolm X were two sides of a very different coin. What MLK said about loving your enemy and fighting hate with love sounded like an admirable idea to me, but one that did not and still does not resonate with me.I was more of a “by any means necessary” chick myself.

Being more than forty years older than I was when MLK was assassinated I am more reflective now, more reasoned, and more likely to give folks a second, third and fourth chance. I am not, however, any more tolerant of those suffering from that dread disease that is so endemic to American society–racism.They need to be healed or ostracized period. Not tolerated, not excused and not apologized for.

Racism is like poison ivy. If you garden you know you can pull it out by the roots, burn it, hack it, dig it up and it will still crop up, if not in the same place then in another area of the garden. At first it often looks like an innocuous plant and you try to remember what you planted there, but as it develops its nasty character is revealed and the process of removal begins again.

Racism is alive and well in America today in so many ways that even I will not attempt to include them all in one of my notoriously long posts. I see it everyday, and not because I am looking for it, but because it slaps me in the face. When you actually have studied race, racial attitudes and racism for decades you see things, things that you can no longer un-see. I have had more than one student complain to me that I have ruined their ability to ignore the evidence of the permanence of racism in our culture.  I am, in some ways, the ultimate Racist CSI!

Race is woven into the very fabric of American life and yet we choose, too often,  to pretend that it is an after thought, some minor social failing primarily held by un-evolved people, primarily those toothless types indigenous to places like  Snake’s Navel Arkansas.

Are most people racists? Thankfully no, most people are decent people. Are racists only white? Depends on your definition of racism. The traditional definition of racism–belief that one’s race makes them superior and the systems and institutions to oppress those from other races, confines it to whites. But, to me racism is more complex than that, it is the belief that you can assign characteristics and personal failings to people based on their race or ethnicity and that you are, in some way, superior because of your race or at least because you are not a member of theirs.

If we use that one then most anyone can be a racist. There are certainly black people who do not care for whites, or for other ethnicities. After 9/11 the number one group that agreed it was okay to target Muslims for extra searches at airports based on personal characteristics was black people.  Being oppressed does not preclude you from being an oppressor given a chance to be evidently. I am no more immune than anyone. When I am confronted with a particularly egregious example of white racism my first reaction is to mentally rant against “those people.”

I have impediments, however, to my continuing along that line of thought. They have different names, Adam, Jack, Donna, Gene, Rosi, Etta, Anne, but they have something in common, they are white folks who I would rather have at my back in a verbal struggle about race than many of the black folks I know. My brain kicks in and I realize that I cannot blame anyone for the sins–insensitivity to outright blatant racism, of one person except that person. I also have to remember that a lot of people do not even know they are being hurtful when they are. That does not excuse it, but indicates that education is what is needed, not animus.

People, I have discovered are people. Some of them of any color are worthless, many of them are good and more than a few are spectacular.

So, on this MLK day I invite everyone to find the divine in each person and help those who need some work before they can appreciate their fellow man. I will go back to my favorite quote, not by MLK but by an old dead white man, Horace Mann.

Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for mankind.

So, buckle on those social justice girdles and get out there and win a victory! I want to retire from social justice work and not have to train a successor! 🙂

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Posted by on January 17, 2011 in Uncategorized


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