Sunday, January 19, 2014

Almost No One Wants to Know the Real Martin Luther King

"The black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws--racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are deeply rooted in the whole structure of our society...and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced."

Who said this? Malcom X? Robert F. Williams? No. It was, of course, Martin Luther King Jr.

Call him na├»ve if you wish--recklessly utopian perhaps--but do not pretend we've had the reckoning he demanded. The relentless drive to mythologize King is propelled by the yawning gap between the vision he proclaimed and the values of the society that claims him. He was too central a figure to forget, so he must be appropriated. He must be absorbed, becoming a totem to bolster the very societal ills he resisted.

Dr. King spoke of the interrelated problems of racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism--problems that were so embedded in the fabric of American life that they compromised the very structure of society. We modern Americans, appropriately colorblind and tolerant, believe that we've fulfilled the promise of the Black freedom struggle by...wait for it...being nice to each other. But militarism has a funny way of withstanding a pleasant hello. Materialism seems impervious to good social graces. To the extent we think of poverty, it is only to imagine growing the ranks of soulless middle-class materialists caught in the spiritual dead end that is the American Dream. Meanwhile, racism withers on the vine, we're told, because personal prejudice openly expressed is the unforgivable sin in modern America. Segregated schools, concentrated poverty, mass incarceration--these do not pertain to racism because they do not depend upon an individual acting malevolently toward another.

It is not wrong to celebrate positive changes in our society. It is essential and good to do so. But every year when this day comes around we do much more than that. As Kimberly Williams Crenshaw has written, "Sober assessments of how far we have come" are replaced "by congratulatory declarations that we have arrived." This reflects, broadly, the conceit of our present-minded culture that takes facile notions of human "progress" as obvious facts. More than that, it reveals, particularly, the persistent marginalization of what racism is and what it has meant and continues to mean to the American experience.

To talk about America honestly is to talk about racism. To talk about the present-day flaws in our society is to talk about racism. To talk about the working out of the gospel in the life of the Christian is to talk about racism. When we ignore race, that most potent and devastating of modernity's inventions, we do not rob it of its power. We merely accede to its quiet demands. Why do I live where I do? Why do I work where I do? Why do I worship where I do? Why am I successful? With hands over our ears and eyes firmly shut, we'd rather not know. The flipside of our colorblind tolerance is our insistent denigration of the importance of race to the lives of real people. We think in doing so we're dealing a death blow to modernity's evil offspring. In reality we're just unilaterally disarming, having lost our ability to distinguish between the racism that must be eradicated and the race consciousness that is necessary to achieve that eradication.

I spent years believing I could convince people of this. I have found that it is not something to be convinced of. It is something to experience, to learn, to be convicted of. It is a journey.

It's Martin Luther King Day. Sounds like as good a time as any to get started.

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