*This week is our annual “King Dance.”
I call it the King dance because it’s the time of year when American society dances around the meaning of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his contributions to the evolution of American society. It is really difficult to grapple with the compromise of King. King was more than a day off work. King marched for social justice and economic equality—he didn’t march in parades. I never got the parade concept. What are we celebrating. The life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Really??? A principled life full of conflict and contradictions that ended in a most brutal way. Nearly 45 years later, America hasn’t gotten of King’s death. Not just why he was killed, but how he was killed. Black people won’t talk about it, and white people won’t talk about it. It’s still ugly and senseless. It invokes too intense emotions either way…so we just honor the memory of King. The memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. Really???
What do we remember? We certainly don’t honor what he stood for. We have restructured the substance of King’s advocacy. The struggle brought progress. The memory has brought regress. Hated in life, loved in death. How does that happen? Martyrs can’t have it both ways. King didn’t and neither have we.
King is just a symbol now. A mere relic of the possibilities he preached about.
When does this society have a conversation about social justice and economic inequity in the context that King posed it? You know, we really never had that conversation. We went from national mourning to national backlash. From Johnson’s desire to help society overcome to Reagan’s “new day” of conservative optimism. Society ignored what King wanted, social and economic equality. The tradeoff for going a bit too far was a national holiday in his honor.—assassination doesn’t seem like a fair reward. Eternal sympathy for ethereal empathy. More a concession than a confession. More gout than guilt. After all this, just a day off from work…really? What do you think King would say about that? Moreover, which do you think he’d prefer, a holiday (that many people don’t honor anyway) or the justice for all that he gave his life for. That’s no brainer…for him, I mean. Not for us. American society still hasn’t figured it out.
One thing that we have concluded over the past forty years… America is not going to indict itself for social and economic inequality, both of which are greater now than when King was alive. What we do know is that the conservative spin machine will use King to rationalize inequality. Conservatives now quote King more than black people do. So we say we now live in a society that one is judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. We know it’s not true, but it sounds good.
Today, we try to be everything to everybody. We want to be colorblind because we’ve been told colorblind is the thing to be. We want to be progressive because the progressives are calling out the injustices in society…but we want to be invited to the elite cocktail parties and social events too. We are now a society of pseudo-activists and engage in faux protest. Like fake furs, we wear cheap but symbolize a political correctness on some minute level. We posture King and prostitute his memory wearing t-shirts in parades and attending chicken dinners. We run from the very things he stood for. We run from economic subjugation. We run from the poverty discussion. We run from police abuse and desperate imprisonment. We run to the moneychangers and from equity.
We just run…from ourselves and our social reality.
We run from race, and race discussion, like we used to run from the Klan. Now we play golf with them on Fridays and beg them for economic reciprocity (contracts). We were less than one percent of government contracts when King was living, and we’re less than one percent of government contracts now—in some areas (like mass transit contracting, oil/petroleum pipelining and transport). Black people are nearly invisible in the labor force. Just like King would’ve wanted it, right? Somewhere along the way, society got it twisted. We, the black community, got it twisted. Now, we’re just twisted. Twisted about King, his memory, what he stood for.
Social justice has been reconstructed. And we get a day off without really dealing with what King really lived for, or more importantly—what he died for.
Justice can’t be everything to everybody, but now it’s very little to anybody.
It certainly isn’t what King stood for. But we have parades to remember him.
Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum (www.urbanissuesforum.com) and author of the upcoming book, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21st Century Popular Culture. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com or on Twitter at @dranthonysamad.