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MLK Day: Dreams and nightmares

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None of this is surprising; it 's the nature of power: When faced with demands for justice by a movement of oppressed people, dominant groups tend to concede only as much as necessary to relieve the pressure. When enough time has passed and the threat to the system has been contained, then the importance of the movement and some of its leaders can be acknowledged, but only if their legacy can be constructed in a way that doesn 't undermine the existing distribution of power.

The nature of privilege is to ignore these realities when they make us uncomfortable. We white people have that privilege. We have that privilege because we live in a white-supremacist society. It is true that the United States made enormous progress on race in the last half of the 20th century, but we still live in a white-supremacist society. What do I mean by that?

By "white supremacist, " I mean a society whose founding is based in an ideology of the inherent superiority of white Europeans over non-whites, an ideology that was used to justify the inhuman crimes against indigenous people and Africans that created the nation and its wealth, an ideology that also has justified legal and extralegal exploitation of every non-white immigrant group in our history.

By "white supremacist, " I also mean a material reality. Forty years after the victories of the civil-rights movement that ended legal segregation, dramatic racialized disparities in wealth and well-being endure. On some measures, such as family income and unemployment, the gap between white and black America is wider today than it was in the immediate aftermath of the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s. On other measures where there has been some progress, such as home ownership, closing the gap will take decades or centuries if current trends continue.

This is a society in which white people occupy most of the top positions in powerful institutions, with similar privileges available in limited ways to non-white people if they fit themselves into white society. It is a society in which many white people hold to that supremacist ideology, believing the culture, politics, philosophy, and art that comes out of white Europe to be superior to all others (even if they won 't admit in public that they believe this).

If white America were truly interested in racial justice, would we not ask, simply, "why? " Why do so many still believe that? Why are the racialized disparities still with us?

We don 't ask because the answer is all too clear and painful: Most white folks don 't much care, and privilege allows us not to care.

What will it take for the United States to transcend white supremacy? It seems obvious that it requires a revolution. But what kind? King called for "a true revolution of values " based in a rejection of the fundamental injustice of the systems in which we live. In King 's words:
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"A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: This is not just. "

"A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: This way of settling differences is not just. This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation 's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. "

In 1967, King laid it out clearly: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. " In 2006, that spiritual death is closer than ever, as it is clearer than ever that it is not "military defense " on which we spend but "military offense. "

At some level, I believe we all know this to be true. We all know the grotesque and widening inequality -- within our own society and between the First and the Third worlds -- cannot continue indefinitely. We know that the belligerent militarism designed to secure resources cannot continue indefinitely. At some level, somewhere within us all, we know that the path this society is on is not the road up to a better future, but a spiral down to something that will look like hell made real in the world. We rule, for now. But how long can that continue?

We know the cost to the world of the quest for domination. About half the world 's population lives on less than $2 a day, and a quarter on less than $1 a day. Iraqis count their dead in the tens -- perhaps hundreds -- of thousands as a result of U.S. liberation. Those are the bills being paid elsewhere.
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What of the cost to us? What of our spiritual death?

The shopping malls are full. Does it fulfill our longing for community? Does it make us feel loved?

We "support the troops. " Does it fulfill our obligations to the world? Does it make us safe?

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)

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