Monday, January 17, 2011
MLK Day 2011: The Fight Against Racism Remains
When I was a member of the organized left many years ago, it was not unusual to hear The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. derided as being a sell-out reformist compared to his militant competitors in the African-American community like Malcolm X. It is true that these two men had differing analyses of American society, and differing responses suggesting counterposed strategies for fighting the racism so prevalent--some would argue so foundational--in American life. Both these great men have been gone for so long, and the world has turned so far, it strikes me as less productive to focus on their differences.
Indeed looking deeper at Dr. King's speeches and actions in the 1960s shows him to be far more radical than the co-opting establishment myths about him would like people to believe. As I noted a few days ago, his position on war and the American military puts him far, far to the left of any mainstream American political figure today. Certainly far, far to the left of our first African-American president. While it might not be possible (or necessary) to resolve Malcolm X's derisive dismissal of the American baby and its bathwater of racism with Dr. King's lofty appeals to some innately American promise of justice, so many years later these things seem like splitting hairs.
What's clear to me is that despite that first African American president, despite undeniable civil rights victories with many legal, social and cultural ramifications, racism remains far from dormant as an animating force for the American right wing.
It's sort of a miracle that Martin Luther King Day is actually a Federal Holiday. I remember when it became one back in the 1980s, it was a joyous moment. No one should forget that chief among the opponents of making Dr. King's birthday a holiday was the right-wing saint Ronald Reagan. For this post I wanted to research who else opposed the holiday -- of course the racist Senator Jesse Helms led the opposition -- and so this morning I googled "who opposed King holiday." I found an innocent sounding website that deeply disturbed me. It's called martinlutherking.org. Click that link at your own risk. Because masquerading as an information resource about Dr. King, this site is actually a nest of racist vipers operated by Neo-Nazi and KKK sympathizers. It links to works by notorious racist David Duke, and links to an alleged "MLK Discussion Forum" hosted by Stormfront, a fascist hate group. It focuses on Dr. King's ties to "communists and Jews," and has articles on why the King holiday should be repealed: it even has downloadable "informational" flyers for your kids to pass out at school "exposing" the truth about Dr. King. These are the snakes lurking deep in the American underbrush. Perhaps not so deep.
Talk of civility in American politics is lovely. People should treat other people with respect. That is an undeniable aspiration, with almost spiritual resonance.
But here's the problem. Pronounced in racist epithets, bad cracker humor like the tea party sign above, or in pretentious pseudo-intelligent polite speech a la Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck or any Republican congressperson, the underlying message coming from the right wing is in and of itself abhorrent. When Ronald Reagan and his ilk opposed the King holiday, they weren't rudely tossing around the "n" word. When today's teabagger movement implies that black and brown people are to blame for the economic crisis, they're not openly calling for lynchmobs.
I think challenging the right-wing's message is absolutely crucial. Exposing the ugliness underneath some newfound professed civility will now become more important than ever. The website I found today is perfectly civil, for example. I didn't see the "n" word anywhere at all. But the racism seeping out of every ugly word is undeniable. Are we to pretend that it's all okay because it's "civil"? I don't think so. While the disinformation website I stumbled on might be a step or two to the right of the average teabagger or Republican congressman, it's clearly calibrated to be in their same ballpark. And this is the danger: do we on the left start pulling punches in response to the right wing's implicit racism because of how it might look? I don't think so.
Dr. King and Malcolm X both had the courage to tell the truth about what they believed. And as the beliefs of both men evolved, they had the courage to explain what was happening to their thinking: Dr. King's position on the Vietnam War and Malcolm X's position on separatism both changed dramatically as a result of them broadening their experiences and drawing connections and conclusions. The words of these two brilliant men remain with us revealing condemnations of racism and injustice that remain extraordinarily relevant and inspiring. The anger bubbling under the surface of their words is white-hot, clear now decades later. And justified.
So while what's called the incivility of the right wing may be grotesque, it seems to me what is more grotesque is the message underlying that incivility. It's that message that needs to be called out and exposed. Allowing the teaparty to claim it is interested only in "constitutional and economic issues" might seem civil. But it's also a lie. The ugly racism at the core of the right wing's message is plain to see. And despite the martyrdom of Dr. King, despite his canonization in a Federal Holiday (and I'm glad for the day off!), there's so much work to be done to fulfill his vision.