Saturday, April 5, 2008

What Progress Looks Like

I was listening to some of the coverage recognizing the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 40 years ago this week when my son asked me who was speaking. I told him it was Martin Luther King Jr.

"Martin Luther King?" 'Yes,' I said, smiling, marveling at the fact a recently-turned 3-year-old could pronounce his name.

I'm an admitted news junkie, and it is apparently paying dividends. Three weeks ago he began talking about Barack Obama, then it was Kwame Kilpatrick and now, Martin Luther King Jr. Make your own snide remarks about the company included in this group. I'll be busy trying to figure out how to get the kid to understand the context, and the matter of the men, and their relevance, which I'm sure will come in time. I say that because 40 years after his assassination, too many adults have yet to grasp the relevance of King's life or discern the importance of his message.

The night before he died, King talked of going to the mountaintop and seeing the promised land. His macabre premonition of not getting there "with us" gives me a chill every time I hear the speech replayed. He sensed death was imminent, yet showed no desire to become a martyr for the cause. Instead, he was consumed with the work of bringing about human rights for all Americans.

The Struggle Continues

Forty years later we are still struggling for rights in our country. Blacks are twice as likely to live in poverty than whites, earn 60 cents for every dollar whites with the same education and experience are paid, go to prison at a rate nearly 450 percent higher than whites and get murdered at a rate more than 520 percent higher than their white counterparts.

A recent Washington Post column by Shankar Vedantam highlights research by Philip Mazzocco and Mahzarin Banaji, social psychologists, who conducted a study in which they asked white volunteers how much money they though would cover the "costs" of being born black instead of white.

The volunteers guessed that about $5,000 ought to do it. That would make up for any disadvantages associated with being black in American rather than white. The interesting thing, Vendantam points out, is that when those same volunteers were asked how much they wanted to go without television, the volunteers demanded $1 million. I'm not making that up.

However, when those same volunteers learned about the gross disparities mentioned above they immediately started to demand much larger sums of money, Mazzocco and Banaji also found. When they learned that they would likely earn less, suffer more and die sooner, the bill ballooned.

"Many whites assume blacks are making use of old crimes to gain present-day benefits
that are unearned," Mazzocco is quoted by the Post. "Underlying this is a misunderstanding and ignorance about black costs and white privilege."

The research confirms of what most blacks in this country have long known, and that is the fact that blacks and whites have different views of what progress is. Having Barack Obama as a serious candidate in the presidential race looks like progress, but he had to address the disparate viewpoints in a now-famous speech on race just two weeks ago, after his former pastor drew criticism for some divisive comments he had made in the past.

I appreciate Mazzocco and Banaji's work because it provides fuel for dialogue and will hopefully cause more people to consider that what looks like progress to them,may not necessarily be progress. Forty years after King's death, racism and inequality remain among the biggest obstacles African-Americans face.

Tony Miller is the controller at United Way for Southeastern Michigan, where he and I both sit on the diversity and inclusion committee. Miller is skilled at developing inspirational prose and did so in tribute to King last week. I thought it fitting because he talked about King's dream being unfulfilled and the need for all of us to continue fighting for human rights and for justice. The text of the piece can be found below.

I asked Miller what Kings' legacy meant to him.

"The legacy of Dr. King is very important to me. It inspires me to live out the dreams inside of me regardless of the circumstances," Miller said. "If inspired and given a reason to believe, Americans of all backgrounds will stand up, face their fears, put others before themselves, and fight to heal this country’s wounded past. And all of this can be done without violence."

Is he hopeful it will really happen, I wondered, in an age where some people think $5,000 would take care of the healing?

"I am very hopefully people will answer his plea. As a matter of fact I know people will answer his plea because they are already doing so. I just want to inspire people to take greater strides and recruit others to join the struggle. Right now the voices of violence, controversy, easy successes, and despair are lifted up in our society," Miller said.

"The voices of peace, harmony, success through struggle, and hope must be lifted up in our society. So we must reward people for peace more than we punish violence. We must promote harmony more than we try to squelch controversy. We must embrace the struggle instead of taking the easy road. We must stir up hope more than we relish in a person’s despair."

That would produce the kind of progress I want to see.


Forty years ago today
Someone thought they could kill my dream by killing me
But I Martin Luther King Jr. still live
I live in the hearts of men and women
Who continue the equality fight
I reside in the souls of those whose mission
Is to one day see this country truly unite
My dream lives on through innocent children
Who love all regardless of color, creed, or race
Someone tried to kill the dream
But the work was already done to prepare you for the trials you’d face
By the time the bullet pierced my skin
I had already given every ounce of my love
The dream that bullet was intended to kill
Cannot die because the dream comes from above
What is the point?
What am I trying to say?
Do not wait any longer
Take action today
Because I spoke the dream
And I took action my dream is still alive
Through every form of hatred, prejudice, and discrimination
My dream will survive
You too have the same power to change your community
You too have the same power to bring about unity
Speak your dreams to those around you
One step and one day at a time
Take actions to make it come true
Someone tried to kill the dream in Memphis, Tennessee
But now the dream is much greater
My question and plea to you is too carry on the dream
40 Years Later

Tony L. Miller
a.k.a. Faith Walker

1 comment:

Rob said...

Race is still very much a taboo subject. Whites will discuss it with whites, blacks will discuss it with blacks, but there is little dialog on the subject between whites and blacks.

The subject gets little play in the media… that is, until something offensive is said by the likes of Michael Richards or Don Imus. Then let the shouting begin!
Al Sharpton, who through modern technology has the ability to clone himself, voices indignation on five media outlets simultaneously, while Others pundits, black and white alike, chime in with all the subtly of two WWE wrestlers before the big smack down.

The scream opera usually ends with a very public, emotional mea culpa by the perpetrator followed by the invariable discussion of the need for a national dialog on race. Then, some other news breaks… and nothing is mentioned about race until another public figure says something stupid (… or President Bush does nothing to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina).

The most recent “shout bout” has been between Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose selected rants have been of the prerecorded variety, and the talking heads on the right, who are spending hour after network hour “condemning” him (… if you listened to nothing but the Sean Hannity Show, you wouldn’t know the economy is in the tank and there’s a mortgage crisis, but you would know who Barack Obama’s minister is).

It’s really hard not to be shocked by the selected clips of Rev. Wright, which were in fact selected specifically for their shock value (… I wonder just how many hours were spent listening to Wright’s sermons in order to find the two or three minutes of footage that now play ad nauseum). If you’re watching Fox News, or perhaps even the other cable networks, you likely won’t ever hear anyone say, “Those comments are deplorable, but what would lead someone who’s living in the world’s richest nation to make them?”

That’s exactly what Obama attempted to do in his Philadelphia speech, presenting his perceptions on the black/white divide in a thoughtful, nuanced way seldom, if ever, seen on the boob tube. It’s exactly the tenor and tone that we need to embrace as a nation.

Talking about race is a rough road to drive, though, as Obama found out just days after presenting his carefully chosen words. Speaking on the fly, he referred to his grandmother as a “typical white person” and the cable talkers immediately started buzzing again. (Could there possibly be anything worse than being called “typical”?)

So in the immortal words of King (Rodney, not Martin Luther), “Why can’t we all just get along?”

Why? Because we don’t try to understand one another, we don’t recognize our own faults along with the faults of others, and too often only hear the most extreme, shrill voices on the subject of race.