As we celebrate the life and work of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this weekend, we are reminded of how far we’ve come in terms of racial justice and equality in America.
And—this year more than most—we are also reminded of how so very far we’ve yet to go.
In honor of the work of Dr. King, I quoted author Michael Eric Dyson in 2019 from his book Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, where Dyson argues of Martin Luther King, Jr. that America has “washed the grit from his rhetoric” in order to get to a place where he can be seen and admired by the country at large. Yet it was King who said that the country’s race problem “grows out of the…need that some people have to feel superior. A need that some people have to feel…that their white skin ordained them to be first.”
Difficult words for many to hear, yet, “This is why King is so important to this generation, to this time, to this nation, to our people,” Dyson writes. “He spoke the truth that we have yet to fully acknowledge.”
In recent days I’ve been immersed in books, articles, and talks that speak to how we have yet to acknowledge the racism of our past and present. It was an essay by the author Michelle Alexander in the Sunday Review of the New York Times as well as an interview with Alexander in The New Yorker that pushed me to revisit her seminal work on mass incarceration. It is a book that reveals the depth of our challenge as well as any I’ve read in recent years, and confronts me personally with each new visit. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness still stands as a stinging rebuke to those who make the case that we are a post-racial society and should quickly move beyond our racist past.
In the book’s original introduction Alexander wrote,
“What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind…We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
Her new essay shows how much has changed from the time when Barack Obama was elected the nation’s first black president until today. Racism is front and center of national discourse, and usually not in a good way.
“Donald Trump is president of the United States. For many, this feels like whiplash. After eight years of Barack Obama—a man who embraced the rhetoric (though not the politics) of the civil rights movement—we now have a president who embraces the rhetoric and the politics of white nationalism. This is a president who openly stokes racial animosity and even racial violence, who praises dictators (and likely aspires to be one), who behaves like a petulant toddler on Twitter, and who has a passionate, devoted following of millions of people who proudly say they want to ‘make America great again’ by taking us back to a time that we’ve left behind.
We are now living in an era not of post-racialism but of unabashed racialism, a time when many white Americans feel free to speak openly of their nostalgia for an age when their cultural, political and economic dominance could be taken for granted—no apologies required.”
Alexander’s interview, essay, and the book—just released in a 10th anniversary edition— all suggest how we must address the new era of Jim Crow by treating the problem of mass incarceration as a racial caste system and not as a system of crime control.
Most importantly, we have to care for people who don’t look like us.
“Seeing race is not the problem,” Alexander writes. “Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem” (emphasis mine). Alexander argues in her book that America should not hope for a colorblind society “but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love.”
Dr. King’s dream was just that: “a society that is capable of seeing each of us, as we are, with love.” Alexander adds, “That is a goal worth fighting for,” and then concludes her current essay with the following:
“The struggle is as old as the nation itself and the birth process has been painful, to say the least. My greatest hope and prayer is that we will serve as faithful midwives in our lifetimes and do what we can to make America, finally, what it must become.”
That fight, as Dr. King suggested, requires moral toughness. Former First Lady Michelle Obama also suggests it requires dignity, determination and hope. In her memoir Becoming, she writes,
“What I won’t allow myself to do, though, is to become cynical. In my most worried moments, I take a breath and remind myself of the dignity and decency I’ve seen in people throughout my life, the many obstacles that have already been overcome. I hope others will do the same. We all play a role in this democracy. We all vote. I continue, too, to keep myself connected to a force that’s larger and more potent than any one election, or leader, or news story—and that’s optimism. For me, this is a form of faith, an antidote to fear.”
There is still much for us to do, especially those of us who have enjoyed the unmerited privilege of being white. We should undertake that work with gratefulness for the life—and continuing impact—of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Have a good week.
More to come…