Here's something I wrote almost four years ago to the day for the Martin Luther King holiday. Seeing as how the election of a black President did not in fact end race as an issue (as right-wing commentators predicted) I see little need to update it. Instead I will quote myself liberally:
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.
Hard to believe that was four years ago, and hard to imagine how many years from now we will still be having this same conversation.