Martin Luther King was a great man who led one of the defining movements of the 20th century—for America, and by example, for the world. However, I believe he was fundamentally wrong in the conclusions to which his Christian moralist background led him throughout most of his crusade. Since his death, the movement he symbolized has stagnated. The recent election of the first (half) black President only illustrates the point. Obama was raised by whites--his mother and his grandparents. He embraced Afro-American culture in early adulthood. However, that embrace does not negate the fact of his background—the fact that being raised with a white mother in white households dramatically altered his point-of-view from that of your typical Afro-American (a term I will use throughout in reference to American descendants of African slaves vs., for instance, a Haitian or Nigerian immigrant).
This shift in point-of-view played a significant role in his ability to win the presidency. What many of us take personally, he takes intellectually. He inherited none of the cultural ‘can’t haves’ that Afro-Americans carry around. Removed from American history’s damage to blacks (his father was Kenyan, not American) he needn’t take our Afro-American history personally. He need not feel its sting. The mother telling him that he could grow up to be President was a white woman. Because he did not inherit a deep sense of exclusion, like the rest of us, he did not react to Republicans’ dog whistle racist taunts by defending his American bona fides with litanies of forebears who had fought in wars or who had labored in southern fields, thereby evoking memories that discomfit so many. He did not react defensively in learned fear of the less-than-American status of earlier black generations. He carelessly flicked off the opposition's arrows. He didn't have to remind America that he was part of a past that they want to forget. Why? Because he is not. His past is not black America’s past. He had the luxury of ignoring it. In doing so, he allowed America to follow suit, and so comforted, elect him President of these United States.
Far from proving how much progress Afro-Americans have made, Obama’s election proves how far we have to go. He cannot be held up as a direct example; we cannot follow in his footsteps: Most of us were not raised by whites and do not imbibe mainstream white cultural attitudes about everything from history to the nature of our country. Most of us do not call a white woman our mother. Most of us do not call a non-American man our father. Most of us are not raised largely in all-brown environments with a distinct distance from mainstream American culture (like Malaysia and Hawaii). No. He cannot be a direct example to us. However, we can identify the elements which have allowed him to reach higher than most of us would have dared and adapt them to our own cultural and historical place in America.
American descendants of African slaves find ourselves, 40 years after the civil rights movement, lagging economically, medically, professionally, educationally. More importantly, we find ourselves struggling with a diminished sustaining sense of our cultural selves as a minority group. It is this cultural sense of self that Obama seems to have cobbled together by uniting his unique mainstream upbringing with his adoption of Afro-American culture. His first book is all about his work of self-creation. It is this work that Afro-Americans, as a group with a shared history, have never done. It is this work that our obsession with the civil rights Movement and its methods—long after the expiration date of both—has prevented.
The election of a dark-skinned man with no personal, genetic attachment to Afro-American history will not prove the balm so many anticipate. I can actually see it proving the opposite--a point of frustration. “There’s a black President, dammit. What do you mean that apartment’s rented when you still have the sign outside the door?” Oakland descends into riots after the release of videotape showing the shooting death of an unarmed black man, hands shackled and lying on the ground as a transit cop seemingly assassinates him at point blank range. The results of the 2008 election will not end American prejudice, bias, racialism or racism. Job applicants with black-sounding names will still be 50% less likely to get a given job than those with less distinctive tags. Blacks will continue to slip backwards—out of the middle class. The growth of hate groups will not suddenly slow. We will wake the day after Barack Obama’s inauguration facing the same hurdles that confronted us prior. The Dream will remain as elusive as it was the day before.
Two historically magnetic forces have kept us tethered to a civil rights era strategy bound to be half-successful because it accepted, on some fundamental levels, negative mainstream constructs about who we are, our place in American society, and the essence of the majority. Barack Obama’s unique upbringing combined with the work he chronicled to blend this part of his self with his adopted culture, freed him from all of the above. It’s time for the rest of us to use similar methods to construct equally independent identities based on a differing set of ingredients.
Because of Martin Luther King’s deep faith, he has been remembered as a man who believed that the pull to brotherhood could overcome what science now tells us are basic human characteristics—seeing those who do not look like us as “the other,” trusting them less, and more readily assigning them negative attributes. King, we’re told, believed that the pull to brotherhood could overcome American history. To that end, he preached the perfectibility of the white majority. He taught that they could seamlessly overcome both history and biology. He brilliantly flattered the majority and used their own beloved Christian symbolism to do it. He gave them a vision of their own colorblind perfection, in which they attributed nothing more to dark skin than hue, and judged each individual not on the color of his skin, but on the content of his character.
It was a dream. And it achieved its initial aim of shaming the majority through flattery, while arming Afro-Americans to fight laws that legalized our marginalization, humiliation and, often, brutalization. It achieved its political aims brilliantly—but little more. As far as healing a people scarred by a history of chattel slavery, and governmentally sanctioned violence and humiliation, it was only a first step.
And then his death left an enormous gash in Afro-America’s psyche. It was as if a wound had only partially healed, and the shaman with the cure had died. We’ll never know how King would have ultimately evolved, where his leadership might have taken Afro-America, or what his long-term strategy might have been. However, at the end, his leadership left us with a dream unfulfilled—a dream dependent upon the Christian goodness of the majority. He left us with a dream—not the reality of the human animal that more easily belittles, reviles and hates those who do not look most like him, not the reality of a history that has taught us all to see black skin as a kind of scar—he left us with a dream that would be endlessly deferred, momentarily slaked with a grand symbolic flourishes but never sustained because it is a dream of human godliness, a dream easily interpreted as one of white men’s perfection—so easily, in fact, that only two decades later, a conservative movement that raised itself up milking fears and hatred of black Americans would claim King’s words and mantel as their own, and there would be nothing to be said against that usurpation, because, as if it were a cunning vampire, King himself had inadvertently invited it in.
In 2006 The Washington Post began publishing a multi-part series entitled “Being a Black Man,” based on the premise that “black men often feel caught between individual achievements and collective failures, defined more by their images in popular culture than their lived experiences.” The series highlighted a poll conducted in collaboration with Harvard University and the Kaiser Family Foundation. When black men were asked about the biggest problems facing them:
68% said racial discrimination was a “big problem.”
91% said young black men did not take their educations seriously enough
88% said too many black men becoming involved in crime
88% said involvement in drug and alcohol abuse
87% said HIV/AIDS
In a similar vein, entertainer Bill Cosby has annoyed some and tickled others with his admonitions against black youth for “opting out” of mainstream society. He made national headlines for, according to CNN, “upbraiding poor blacks for their grammar and [accusing] them of squandering opportunities the civil rights movement gave them.” Juan Williams, Sr. Correspondent for NPR Radio and political analyst for Fox News, expresses the ubiquitous lament on today’s black American youth culture in a Washington Post op-ed. He wrote:
Their search for identity and a sense of direction is undermined by a twisted popular culture that focuses on the "bling-bling" of fast money associated with famous basketball players, rap artists, drug dealers and the idea that women are at their best when flaunting their sexuality and having babies.
However, Williams dresses his arguments against today’s ills in yesterday’s rags. “Where,” he asks, “are the marches demanding good schools for those children—and the strong cultural reinforcement for high academic achievement (instead of the charge that minority students who get good grades are "acting white")?” He bemoans the poor results of a “search for identity”—a cultural issue—and then instinctually regresses to political civil rights clichés—marches, sit-ins, etc.—the political lifeblood of the old civil rights movement. These tactics were highly effective in gaining legal recognition of our rights. They are utterly useless in effecting cultural change within Afro-America. Looking at the results of the Washington Post survey, that’s what is most needed now. It’s time to jettison the old civil rights rhetoric, and set the stage for 21st century actions that might actually have an impact—an impact greater than allowing the zombified carcass of the 60s civil rights movement to nod sagely as it congratulates itself on massing yet another hoard of people to stand about shouting couplets to no lasting effect.
We now know that humans are naturally predisposed toward prejudice against those who look “different.” We are not sci-fi “creatures of light.” We are animals whose primate brains continue to look with suspicion and fear on those who are not like us. Thus, we can officially stop the two-step dance of feigning shock that prejudice and racism still plague us and/or denying its existence. It will always exist. No amount of righteous Christian dreaming will change that. And for a great long time its sting will be greater for Afro-Americans because a national cultural history of negative perceptions and stereotypes have been hard-wired into the American cultural circuit board. It takes but a wink and a nod to evoke them.
In their book “The Black Image and the White Mind,” Robert M. Entman and Andrew Rojecki write:
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