Monday, January 21, 2008

King's Nation

Today is a day set aside to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., a man martyred in the cause of justice. We quite properly set time aside to think about and honor his legacy; it is one of a set of perhaps uniquely American holidays, including Labor Day and Independence Day, with a contemplative side to them – holidays that demand we think about the nature of our country.

While he never for a moment contemplated abandoning his fundamental belief in nonviolence, King certainly drifted more toward the angry currents in American life after his speech at the March on Washington. He vowed to tackle fundamental issues of poverty in American society, which he saw as signs of chronic, institutionalized American injustice. I thus do not know whether, had he lived, he would’ve been willing to acknowledge that in every way worth winning, he has won. Despite the extent to which politicians use this day to invoke some imaginary dammed-up pool of critical unfinished business, the nation we have is the nation he wanted in 1963. The “symphony of brotherhood” that he invoked as a mere dream on the Mall in fact exists, in every meaningful sense. Even as American policies are often despised, America itself is now a beacon unto the individuals of the world who wish to be masters of their own lives, drawing immigrants of all complexions, tongues and faiths from all over the planet to be stirred into the peculiar America stew.

Every day Americans from every tribe get up and go to work together in harmony; they date; they marry; they politick; they live together as peacefully as can realistically be imagined. From India, Zimbabwe, Jamaica, China, Brazil and Honduras they come, to a land that grants them the basic dignity of judging them as individuals. It is a phenomenal miracle, all the more noteworthy because few ever think to notice it. A year or so ago I was having a conversation with colleagues, which turned to the usual litany of grievances about our domestic injustices – the unfair treatment of this group or that, requiring some major government step to remedy it. I noted that most countries with America’s tribal diversity would be in flames (as many in fact are), and that perhaps we ought to spare a moment to ponder why we aren’t, instead of devoting all our time in disproportionately angry rage at the perceived blemishes that remain.

King’s victory has been absolute. We live in a society where people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Had he lived, he might have reconciled himself to the notion of justice most fundamental, the justice in allowing us to make our way through society as individuals with strengths and weaknesses rather than as a member of a group predetermined to be oppressor or oppressed. In any event, his fellow Americans forty years after his murder find themselves, whether they know it or not, reaping the fruits of his vision.

There is to be sure some unfinished business – the black and Hispanic communities in particular are disproportionately poor, for example (although “poor” in 2008 is, thanks to economic growth rather than government programs, a much different thing than it was in 1963). But that disadvantage is selective – most blacks and Hispanics are not poor in any event, and blacks from the Caribbean and Africa do as well as other immigrant groups. This suggests that what remains is more about unwise choices by individuals (of all sorts) than unjust barriers to groups.

There is also the legacy of the civil-rights industry. Its primary victories having been won in 1965 with the ending of state-mandated segregation and the enforcement of equal access to the vote, the industry has had to find some reason to justify its continued existence. And so it concerns itself not with the real horrors of lynching, exclusion from the franchise, etc., but with such ephemera as racial profiling by state troopers and moronic remarks by people like Don Imus. That these are the things it can afford to concern itself with is itself a sign of how complete the triumph of King’s dream has been.

The industry’s most problematic legacy is the affirmative-action machine, but on this day Roger Clegg writes that even this guilt-driven beast may be mortally wounded, with the anticipated triumph of anti-affirmative action referenda in several states this year. America, he argues, is a nation that believes in equal rights for all and special privileges for none. No other nation in my experience has launched an affirmative-action effort and then repealed it, and many countries (Sri Lanka, Malaysia and India, for example) have been driven to ever-greater rancor by arguments over its spoils. If we can end it it will suggest that in America, despite the best energies of our self-interested multicultural and tribal lobbies, the dream’s triumph is total and permanent.



Blogger Polesitter Racing said...

If King were alive today he would be proud that society has come so far in so short a time as to enable any person to have opportunity, provided they are willing to work for it. The sky is the limit as far as opportunities available to peoples of various cultures today. However, racism is far from dead. To quote Kanye West "George Bush doesn't care about black people". Such statements illustrate the underlying feelings of animosity that are held by people of all races. Frankly I do not think George Bush cares about any particular race over another. The media's portrayal, embraced by the democratic party, that rich whites have wronged the blacks of America and that the blacks are owed some immeasurable debt damages King's legacy. King never wanted handouts, he wanted opportunities. Our society has made leaps and bounds in terms of making similar opportunities available to all peoples, however at some point the mentality of an owed debt became commonplace, thus affirmative action. I think in 2008 most if not all employers recognize the value of diversity in their workforce. Those employers who do not are losing valuable talent and at a competitive disadvantage.

Unfortunately our society has adopted the handout mentality. This mentality has permeated our society in such a way that instead of asking or expecting all people to take advantage of the opportunities available to them, ie. get a job, we accept the idea of some kind of a welfare handout under the guise that its somehow owed because someone didn’t have an opportunity. This idea of something owed has permeated our society and helped create the gangsta culture promoted amongst our nations youth (black, white, latino). Similar to how Hitler was able to instill a strong sense of nationalism in the German people in the late 1930s. The Gangsta rolemodels in today's society reinforce the sense of something owed in todays youth. Our US Senators are worried about which baseball player is taking performance enhancing drugs to hit homeruns and the impression they are giving our nations youth. Meanwhile we have NFL & NBA athletes being accused and convicted of felonies involving shootings (Pacman Jones), drug dealing (Jamal Lewis), murder (Ray Lewis – later acquitted). I’m sure these role models actions are not making an impression on our youth.

How long it will be before the racism in our society boils over. Incidents such as the recent shooting in Lima, Ohio where a white police officer recently shot a mother of 6 and her 1 year old child during a drug raid illustrate the feelings that are reaching their boiling point in the community. No one including the liberal media, questions the parenting ability of the mother of 6 who was raising her kids in a crack house and was accidentally shot during a drug raid on the house. The only headline that gets airplay is the fact that the white cop shot her. While I believe that police tactics are often more severe than they need to be, I don't believe that any officer wakes up in the morning with the intention to shoot anyone (black, white, asian, latino, etc) during the course of his or her day. Unfortunately the media uses such incidents to try to sensationalize the news. (If it bleeds it leads!) This type of news only adds fuel to the fire of racial tension in our country. This tension coupled with the perception being given that resorting to violence is ok will eventually lead to an ugly situation in this country. Could Lima, Ohio host the next round of race riots? I believe that Martin Luther King would be proud of the steps that our country has made were he alive today. I believe that Martin Luther King would be disgusted with many of the messages our youth are receiving from a multitude of different sources (music, tv, internet, news). I think Martin Luther King would recognize that all races have some bad apples and if one is shot in a drug raid, maybe the circumstances that person put themselves in led to their demise and not some perceived racist action. Finally I think our society needs a Martin Luther King unifying figure to speak messages of truth, hope and opportunity.

11:32 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

One never knows how history would've turned out had it run on a different track. King may have ended up as just another angry tribalist with his finger pointed and his hand out, but I like to think not.

I agree that ethnic/religious tensions are unavoidable, but I am optimistic that a truly free society allows people to indulge their equally powerful impulse to cooperate with their fellow man.

But you are right that the media is no help.

10:46 AM  

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