Today is MLK Day. Tempting as it is to point an angry finger at a racist president, I want to look beyond the headlines and in the mirror instead. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed not the Ku Klux Klanner but white people of goodwill.
“I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress… Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”
We know where the president stands on “liberty and justice for all” – but what about us?
As people of goodwill, what are we doing to fix an economic system that endows white Americans with 86 times more wealth than African Americans – a chasm that is growing wider under the recent tax cut?
What are we doing to end employment discrimination along racial lines, which has shown no signs of improvement for the last 25 years? What about persistent discrimination in housing and education?
What are we doing to reform a criminal justice system that wrongfully convicts African Americans 12 times more often than white Americans, and leaves millions of convicted ‘felons’ without the right to vote?
What are we doing to end the epidemic of police violence in communities of color, especially after 987 Americans – the majority darker-skinned – were shot and killed by police in 2017?
This is racism of a quieter yet more disquieting sort than we see from President Trump. We may not utter the same incendiary ideas – we may protest them outright! – but we are all complicit. Even as the father of children deemed “black” by society, I am complicit.
So what are we to do? Sindiso and I have had much to say on the topic over the years and wish to offer just two quick thoughts today – a challenge for ourselves and all who share our yearning for a truly just and free society.
1. We must begin, in MLK’s words, by seeking to understand “the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race” through authentic encounters with people of color in our communities (dinner, anyone?). At the same time, we must grapple deeply with our people’s history as a country and with the prophetic, sometimes conflicting, visions offered by thinkers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Dr. Cornell West, and Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
2. Inspired by King – and Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, A. Phillip Randolph, Marcus Garvey and countless others – we must undertake “strong, persistent and determined action” against injustice. When we join our time and talents, our money and reputation to movements like #BlackLivesMatter and organizations like the NAACP, Hip Hop Caucus, and ColorOfChange.org, we help to write a new American story marked by love – the story I want to tell my kids before it is too late.