Has America moved forward in embracing King’s dream or has it regressed? As I was watching the film “Selma,” I was struck by how the present mirrors the past. As we celebrate another Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we should examine who and what are undermining King’s Dream.
By being anti-civil rights, anti-gay rights, anti-Immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-black, and anti-inclusiveness, conservatives in America are undermining King’s Dream. I recently saw a pickup truck with a sticker of a cartoon figure urinating on the name “OBAMA.” Reminiscent of the way King was treated in Selma, this type of conservative-inspired hate is killing King’s Dream.
King appealed to the white clergy who remained on the sidelines of the fight for equality and social justice until Selma. Today, a substantial number of conservatives are evangelical Christians who are supposed to be guided by the principles of Jesus. What is their current stance on police brutality, poverty and social justice? Where are their outreach efforts for those on the fringes of society? “What would Jesus do?” Jesus would be in the streets feeding the people and protesting injustice with the people. Jesus had a dream before King did — and if this group followed that dream our society would be a better place.
We cannot move forward because when there is a tragedy such as Michael Brown or Eric Garner, the country immediately takes sides based on race. Blacks automatically take the side of the victims: Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice. Some whites automatically take the side of the perpetrator. This divide undermines King’s dream.
The reason some whites will stop reading this article right about now is white guilt. And the reason some whites automatically take the side of the perpetrator in these recurring tragedies, ironically, is white guilt. Whites are rebelling against being wrong. In an argument about race in America, the black person always seems to have the upper hand. Who wants to always be wrong about an issue? Consequently, whites are rebelling against feeling guilty about historic mistreatment, police brutality, black poverty and poor schools. And anytime a person speaks candidly about the problem they are immediately viewed as the problem. Their knee-jerk response to the struggle of blacks is to be pro-white. This approach is easier than being burdened by guilt. Nevertheless, this reaction undermines King’s dream.
Because of the overwhelming benefits of white privilege, many whites cannot see injustice because they, or their family members, have never experienced it. They cannot fathom what it feels like to be the mother of Mike Brown or the wife of Eric Garner. White privilege gives whites the benefit of the doubt, something blacks are rarely afforded. It is the invisibility of white privilege that blinds whites to the comparative injustice experienced by blacks. This phenomenon undermines the capacity to achieve King’s dream.
King fundamentally believed in nonviolence. There are those who are violent and lawless in their protests of racial injustice. Their approach is to be heard and seen by any means necessary. This approach is contrary to King’s philosophy and is counterproductive in achieving his dream.
Racial discrimination and social injustice in America have given blacks a sense of entitlement to anger. Whites say stop playing victim. Blacks say stop the victimization, “Black Lives Matter.” But the black voices of protest are so loud and animated that no one else can be heard.
For two decades, young black men have increasingly embraced the “gangsta-thug” persona. Their enthusiastic embrace of this rebellious spirit is manifested in a myriad of ways. Everyone sees it but few people want to confront it. The black community has not held this population accountable for its counterproductive behavior and we see the consequences of this neglect everyday. Where is the mentorship? Where is the guidance, the education, and the discipline?
I run one of the biggest prison education programs in the United States. I also direct the Reintegration Academy for adult parolees and juvenile probationers. Some 10 percent of the volunteers for my programs are black and 70 percent are white. This fact tells us that not all whites are adversarial toward the “cause” and not all blacks are truly committed to the “cause.” In order to move forward, we need candor in our discourse and protests must be coupled with commitment.
Today, King’s dream is still a dream. Ferguson is not Selma but America is nowhere near achieving King’s ideal. We are immersed in a recalcitrant domestic crisis that has been fueled by blindness, negligence and dishonesty. When everyone is right, no one is. And when no one is to blame, we all are. It is only when we begin to acknowledge these ugly truths that we begin to heal, evolve and march toward making King’s noble dream a reality.
By Renford Reese, Ph.D.
Renford Reese, Ph.D. is a professor of political science at Cal Poly Pomona. He is the author of five books including the widely discussed, American Paradox: Young Black Men. He is the founder/director of the Prison Education Project, www.PrisonEducationProject.org