Plenty of observers have noted in recent years that Martin Luther King, Jr. is slowly being turned into some kind of benevolent and harmless Santa Claus figure as his life and death recede farther into the past. The majority of Americans today weren't alive during King's lifetime. They didn't see segregation and the lengths to which southern white people went to maintain it. Sure, they've probably read about it (not that kids are learning much about it these days) but we're starting to see the effect of generations of kids growing up with the pre-Civil Rights Movement south as a historical abstraction rather than a direct experience. As the many lamentable events of 2014 highlighted, for most white Americans the only race problem this country has is that black people don't work hard enough or they demand special treatment. And MLK becomes an increasingly confusing figure as more time passes and more ignorant people, willfully or otherwise, clamor to take ownership of his legacy. To a young adult today, he is a guy that has a street named after him in the second-most neglected neighborhood in every city and a big, pleasantly chubby man who had some kind of dream that apparently worked out fine. Oh, and he was a Republican.
Last year was a banner one for showcasing how deeply divided and, frankly, fucked up America and Americans are about race. We have a system and a culture that demonizes, marginalizes, and institutionalizes black people in too many ways to count. We collectively see black men as shiftless layabouts who spend their days selling drugs and planning to do violence to white people, while black women are welfare-mooching baby factories with incomprehensible names. White society passes these lessons down from one generation to the next, and since the mainstreaming of the lunatic conservative fringe in the 1990s we've increasingly raised people to believe that all of our past issues with race (which really weren't that bad!) were resolved in 1964. Since then the red carpet has been laid out for black Americans, who through a combination of moral lassitude and government enabling have instead chosen to leech, pilfer, and violate the society that so generously welcomed them.
As I watched what happened in Ferguson, NYC, Cleveland, and too many other places to count last year – and particularly watched how white people reacted in many cases with an amount of bile and racist invective that would have made a 1920s Klansman blush – I wonder if America's race problem is actually worse today than it was when Martin Luther King lived. Sure, we no longer have segregated theater seating and public bathrooms. But back in the days of Jim Crow, society didn't even bother to pretend that black people were equal or treated equally. Somehow the widespread perception among whites today that black people (and other people of color) are treated equally despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary has made things worse. We've traded brutal, immoral honesty for a delusion that has made us more bitter by the day.