Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Fierce Urgency of Now

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

Rev. Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr. August 28, 1963

On this day in 1963, Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered what we now call the “I Have a Dream Speech” to 200,000 peaceful advocates for racial justice.

They were marching, he said, to “demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice,” and to remind the nation of what he called “the fierce urgency of now.”

He talked about pursuing this struggle with discipline and dignity and he talked about solidarity with white people who would share in that struggle. The militancy of the struggle, he argued, “must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”

The tragic shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, and the reactions to it, provide a sad reminder that the dream is not yet a reality.

We have come a long way. The idea of a black man as President of the United States was hard to imagine when Dr. King addressed the crowd in Washington. Our society is more integrated, more open, and less overtly racist. These improvements are real and they are dramatic. The need now is less about new laws, although the gains made by the voting rights laws need to be protected. We cannot minimize our needs in job creation, education, and health care, but in many ways, our greatest need is for new attitudes and new understandings

And we have a long way to go.

If you don’t believe that racism is alive and well, just go on almost any internet site that hosts commentary on the shooting in Ferguson. A web site set up to receive donations to help pay the defense costs for the police officer who shot Michael Brown received so many racist comments, they had to shut it down and start again. For a glimpse of what it looked like before the shutdown, click here. Columnist and Fox News contributor Linda Chavez wrote a column for the New York Post complaining that it was biased to call Michael Brown “an unarmed black teenager.”After all, he was over six feet tall and weighed three hundred pounds. As if large teenagers were no longer teenagers or unarmed.

Racism is the air we breathe. It infects all of us. In a New York Times column titled, “Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist?” Nicholas Kristof reminds us of our latent racism. There are many people, he points out, who are enlightened, who are intellectually opposed to racism, and yet harbor racist stereotypes and prejudices.

Studies have shown that when doctors treat people for a broken leg, they prescribe pain medication more often for white patients than they do for blacks and Hispanics. Black students are suspended by school administrators at a rate that is three times the rate of white students. Although blacks and whites use marijuana at approximately the same rates, blacks are arrested 3.7 times as often.

Kristof cites another study in which scholars responded to nearly 5,000 help-wanted ads. They sent half of their resumes with stereotypically black sounding names and the other half with white sounding names. It took 50% more mailings to get a response for a black name as for a white name, and a white name gained the applicant an advantage equal to eight years of experience.

In yet another study, scholars found that we unconsciously connect “American” with “white.” In 2008 they questioned a group of California college students and found that they treated then presidential candidate Barack Obama as if he were more foreign than Tony Blair, former British Prime Minister, in spite of the fact that many of the students were supporting Obama for president. The tests also showed that although Americans knew that Lucy Liu is an American actor and Kate Winslet is British, they still thought Liu was more foreign.

Not only do we have a hard time recognizing the reality of our own racism, many of us believe that America is more prejudiced against white people than against black people.

That fact is so bizarre, I was tempted to call this column, “White People Are Crazy.”

According to a study by scholars at Tufts and Harvard, both whites and blacks agree that anti-black racism has decreased over the last sixty years. But the study also shows that whites believe that anti-white racism has increased over that same time period and now is a bigger problem than anti-black racism.

Participants were asked to rate the anti-black racism and the anti-white racism in society on a 10-point scale, with 10 as maximum bias. On average, whites rated anti-white bias as the greater problem by more than a full point. And 11 percent of whites rated anti-white bias as a 10, the maximum rating.

“It’s a pretty surprising finding,” says Tufts Associate Professor Samuel Sommers, Ph.D., “when you think of the wide range of disparities that still exist in society, most of which show black Americans with worse outcomes than whites in areas such as income, home ownership, health, and employment.”

Apparently, even our perceptions of racism are colored by racism.

In his commentary about what he seemed to perceive as an anti-white bias in the coverage of the events in Ferguson, Bill O’Reilly complained, “to the race hustlers, Officer Wilson is already guilty. They have convicted him. Their slogan is ‘no justice, no peace’. I guess that's lynch mob justice because those people will never accept anything other than a conviction of murder in this case. They don't really care what happened. They want Officer Wilson punished.”

No one should be in favor of “lynch mob justice,” but it is useful to put that in historical perspective. On this day in 1955 a 14 year old black teenager by the name of Emmett Till was lynched for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Not figuratively lynched. Brutally tortured and lynched.

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