While I'd normally talk about the primaries in light of this weekend's action, I think the holiday deserves some thought today.

Martin Luther King, like "the Holocaust" or "the Founding Fathers", has become a perfunctory public relations tool. White America has the annoying tendency to bring him up as a form of tokenism, a la "And to show you how I'm down with the colored folk, I will now talk about how great I think MLK was." He's a backdrop for cheesy advertising, motivational speeches, and sidebars in textbooks. We bring him up a lot on our patronizing photo-op Trips into Harlem ("I support Dr. King…..and mandatory minimum sentencing!"). He's lauded for his "peaceful" and dignified approach (unlike that nasty Malcom X, who doesn't make white people feel quite so good about themselves). We remember and talk about, in essence, everything except what he actually stood for. We go as far as to innocuously call the holiday "Human Rights Day" just to completely de-contextualize and water down any potential discussion of the racial elephant in the room.

Let's not talk about how there are now more black men in prison than college – and that the black prison population has risen from 150,000 (in 1980) to 800,000 (today). A 350% increase in 25 years seems reasonable. Like many white Americans, I was raised to believe that there are more black people in the justice system because more black people commit crimes. I guess no one thought it strange that they apparently started committing all of these crimes in 1980. Maybe they had a national meeting and decided to go on a spree. We can't talk about that, because that would entail talking about how the entire "War on Drugs" is little more than a thinly-disguised War on the People We Don't Want In Our Neighborhoods. Of the black men born between 1978 and 1982, 16% are either dead or in prison. Think about that for a second.

Let's not talk about black/white income inequality, or the torrent of race-baiting we see from the media, talk radio, and elected officials, or the white hysteria about "reverse racism" and "racial quotas." Instead let's just warmly applaud a 45-second news story about that likeable man who had some sort of dream, a dream that, whatever it was, apparently worked out OK.

We live in a country in which intelligent people still raise their kids to roll up the windows in "black neighborhoods," to believe that everyone on welfare is black (and they're on it because they're too lazy to work), to think that the ignorant black people are going to unfairly take the law school spots that are rightly Ours, and to think that one can believe all of these things and somehow Not be a Racist. We live in a country where we don't debate racial issues, we debate Free Republic propaganda about how MLK, if alive today, would be rubbing elbows with Trent Lott in the GOP caucus. Can't blame the right wing for trying to claim him, since he and his message have been reduced entirely to Dalai Lama-esque mascot status.

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7 Responses to “THAT SPINNING SOUND”

  1. dbsmall Says:


    A few years ago, I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X. I decided he was an amazing man, and an amazing thinker. Through the majority of his life, though, he would have hated me. Not just because I'm a white Jew (although that would have been sufficient credential). But because of the way I've thought about people—life's easier with heuristics for most of your interactions.

    What is true about both MLK Jr. and Malcolm X, is that neither was *lazy*. They took different approaches, but both approaches were effortful.

  2. JDryden Says:

    Ah, race–that most undiscussable of political topics. You've got to hand it to the GOP–and Colbert's repeated in-character claim that "I don't see race" is a perfect encapsulation of this–they've managed to make their worst issue into a position of strength, since anytime anyone discusses race, they accuse him/her of being racially divisive (and therefore racist.) Same as their deal with "class warfare." Sheer nerve and intelligence, in equal measures, and they get away with it, and really, who can blame them–what are they supposed to do, cop to being the party of bigots? I think not.

    As for King himself, sheesh–where to begin? First, we've done ourselves a disservice to deify him. Not that he doesn't deserve it, but because in making him inimitable…well, we no longer think to imitate him. "Peaceful" doesn't mean "Non-confrontational"–the man was quite willing to his head cracked in and spend the night in the slammer if that's what it took. I don't see *any* leaders willing to do that these days. The more we remember King as a human being–one with flaws, who made mistakes and who nevertheless rose above them to achieve great things–the better for us.

    Then again, what the hell does a lily-skinned Wonder-bread honkey like me know, anyway?

  3. Nan Says:

    We also totally decontextualize MLK while focusing on only one part of a very complex man. I rarely hear any one talking about how thoroughly King was hated in his time, or about his anti-war and pro-labor positions. The MSM will mention that he got shot in Memphis, but they rarely include the fact he was there to help support the sanitation workers who were out on strike.

  4. Nick Says:

    I go to the civil rights rallies
    And I put down the old D.A.R.
    I love Harry and Sidney and Sammy
    I hope every colored boy becomes a star
    But don't talk about revolution
    That's going a little bit too far
    So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal
    I cheered when Humphrey was chosen
    My faith in the system restored
    And I'm glad that the commies were thrown out
    From the A.F.L. C.I.O. board
    And I love Puerto Ricans and Negros
    As long as they don't move next door
    So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal

  5. Matthew Says:

    Ah, Phil Ochs. Good stuff, Nick.

  6. Nick Says:

    I like the Mojo Nixon/Jello Biafra version as well.