HERE COMES SANTA CLAUS

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.

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34 Responses to “HERE COMES SANTA CLAUS”

  1. Dbp Says:

    I had a history professor who referred to King as "The Teddybear" because of the way he is now perceived.

  2. Glen h Says:

    It is a not uncommon thing to happen to such figures. Helen Keller is another one. She used her experience with her disabilities as a springboard into political and social positions that even today are radical.
    Yet today she is mostly remembered as the sweetie pie of "The Miracle Worker" or the punchline of questionable jokes!

  3. Death Panel Truck Says:

    Yet today she is mostly remembered as the sweetie pie of "The Miracle Worker"

    DAMN YOU TO HELL PATTY DUKE!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Arslan Says:

    Here's a fun trick to do with people who use MLK to cover up for their racism, e.g. "What would MLK say about this?!"

    Ask them what MLK did. Yes, we know he was a Civil Rights figure. Yes, we know he gave a speech called "I have a dream." But please tell us what he DID. Give us some specifics. How did he get started in the civil rights movement. What state did he live in. What was the reaction to his activism, etc. Guarantee you you're going to encounter some stammering and deer-in-headlights action.

  5. Rugosa Says:

    I will play angel's advocate. I am in my 60s and the civil rights struggle as shown on TV was a constant part of my growing up. Today, black people have more opportunity and access to education, political participation, and the professions. There is a large and growing black middle class. We have made progress in 50 years. The progress in race relations spilled over and fueled the women's movement and the gay right movement.

    Are we done with the struggle? By no means, but we can't expect to reverse 400 years of racism in only 50. The rightward turn of this country is an awful thing, in my opinion, and aids and abets the racists. But they've lost the main battles. When I listen to MLK's speeches and the stories of the civil rights fight, I am amazed at what was accomplished. King was no teddy bear; he had amazing grit and determination. Those of us who are white would do well to listen to him, really listen. Don't give up to the racists and their hatred. "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

  6. Arslan Says:

    @Rugosa

    Indeed the civil rights era made great progress, but the backlash is often predicated on this idea that the 60's fixed all those problems(which most of these white folks are hazy about), and therefore now anyone talking about race and systemic discrimination is just lazy or is looking for an excuse for their supposedly self-inflicted failure.

    What things like the war on drugs or the shooting of unarmed black people(yes, women too) followed by trials for the victims teach us is that systematic discrimination can continue and even increase in spite of being outside of the legal system.

  7. Freeportguy Says:

    During the Jim Crow days, racism was all out in the open. Nowadays, it's all under a cover.

    Guess which one is the most lasting and perverse…

  8. Arslan Says:

    On one hand, I think of the Topeka riots and say that open racism is worse, but on the other hand- Kansas as far as I know never instituted Jim Crow laws, ergo the argument still stands.

  9. democommie Says:

    I was at a "book group" yesterday afternoon with four other folks. We are all fairly sharp and at least three of us (NOT ME) have advanced degrees (2 PhD and 1 Masters).

    We are reading "Huckleberry Finn" and, as will happen, the question of whether Samuel Clemens was a racist came up. There was some discussion about his time and place, etc., and it got a little "post racist", imo. Two of the people at the table said that his use of the word, "nigger" was done primarily for shock value as the word was, even then, considered unfit for gentell discourse by "these" peoplel.

    I told them that I could only relate my own experience but it certainly included hearing the word–a lot–in both my home and other social settings as well as the workplace. And the use of the word was not restricted to the poor, the ignorant or the "out" racists. As recently as 2-1/2 years ago I was in my hometown, Omaha, NE, for a family visit and stopped into a bar that was owned by a guy I went to school with. Guys my age with their grown sons in tow were bitching about the "niggers". It was not a happy moment, These were the people I grew up around. Unrepentant racist assholes–far too many of them.

    Racism is pervasive, persistent and pernicious, AND it's as "American" as apple pie.

  10. Funkhauser Says:

    While I generally agree with Rugosa, I think that, as during Reconstruction, the white suprematists in the South have also won some partial victories, and they've adapted.

    I'm showing Eyes on the Prize again in class this week. In my mind, there's a straight line in denying political power to minorities and the oppressed that runs from Byron de la Beckwith to Kris Kobach. Same ends, same legal (which is to say, illiberal, illegal, or unconstitutional but protected) means, but same ends. The difference is that Kris Kobach uses a more clever cover ("vote integrity/fraud").

  11. c u n d gulag Says:

    The election of our first black President, Barack Hussein Obama, has caused the open bigots to be more open about their racism, and the hidden bigots to crawl out from under the rocks and tree stumps.

    We have a whole range of Reich-Wing talk radio stations, and an entire tv "news" network, dog-whistling loudly their racism, hatred, and fear.

    On websites, no dog-whistling is necessary – you can be openly, viciously, racist.
    Read some comments on Reich-Wing sites, and you'll lose all hope for humankind.

    Btw – a lot of people forget that not only was MLK Jr. working to get racial equality, he was also working to get economic equality.
    We have had some success with the former, but we're losing badly in the latter.

    Tonight, in his SOTU address, President Obama will talk about raising taxes on the top 1%, and lowering taxes on the middle class.
    It should be fun tonight watching the Republicans heads explode!

  12. RosiesDad Says:

    Our younger daughter is a 10th grader who attends a Jewish Day School. I was talking to her about the attack on Charlie Hebdo and if they talked about it at school and then if they talked about terrorism and freedom of speech issues. She told me that they had an assembly and the kids were asked about dealing with prejudice, "Do you think it would be easier to be Black or to be Jewish?" One girl in her class answered, "I would rather be Jewish in America but Black in Europe." I thought that was remarkably perceptive for a 15 year old kid.

  13. Rugosa Says:

    I don't deny that we are seeing an intense backlash from die-hard racists, and I agree with C U N D that the election of a black president has fueled some of it. I think some of it is also that during hard times, some people need a scapegoat – "if we weren't spending so much on welfare for the undeserving, things would be fine" – and the right cynically manipulates that. But – we are not going back.

  14. Dave Dell Says:

    "Letter From Birmingham Jail" was taught to me some 50 years ago as an example of great writing in my English Composition class. Nothing in Civics class or American History class. I can forgive the History class since we barely made it to WWII by the end of spring semester. I could tell many stories about how absolutely all-around clueless Civics/Homeroom was.

    Of more import to me after the fact (a trip to Vietnam was in my future – I already knew that but hadn't a clue that King was economically and socially against the war) was MLK's speech(es) about Vietnam. "Beyond Vietnam" in 1967 could have minor edits and still be profoundly relevant today.

  15. Anubis Bard Says:

    One of the things that makes US racism so powerful and durable is that the more destructive and awful we make the misery, disparities and injustices of race, the more natural and right the system seems to people. The outcomes of racism are held up as proof that our racism is right and just.

  16. J. Dryden Says:

    Surely one of the most repulsive trends in modern "conservatism"–which has gone so far down a weird path that the movement demands quotation marks to separate it from the actual meaning of the word–is the frequency with which its advocates claim kinship with King. Such individuals would surely, while the man was alive and urging things like unionization and boycotts and open defiance of law enforcement, have loudly joined and deepened the drumbeat of accusations that he was a Communist (i.e. a traitor and deserving of all that befell him and his supporters.)

    Now that he's dead, of course, and safely unable to recoil from this repulsive embrace, as well as unable to do the things that they have declared "class warfare" and "reverse racism", they have no problem transforming him into Their Guy. To quote Hitchens, "Doesn't that make you want to throw up everything you've ever even thought about eating?"

    But fuck it–it means that King is in the best of company. Look what they did with Jesus.

  17. Anonymouse Says:

    "welfare-mooching baby factories with incomprehensible names". Hmmm, for a second there, I thought you were talking about the Duggars, with their Jinger (jing-er?) and Joanna and Johanna (not twins). Waiting for Jalopy and Juicebar to make their appearance.

  18. Anonymouse Says:

    @Funkhauser: One of my many, many jobs in college in the 1980s was the computer lab, and its less-funded twin, the av lab. Being tech-savvy meant I got to set up the VCR/TV carts for professors (don't laugh–being a tech whiz kid in 1983 meant knowing how to hit the "play" button for professors born in the early 1920s!). I showed Eyes on the Prize several times, and each time I got more out of it. Good on you for showing it again.

  19. Skepticalist Says:

    Only 60 years ago, my father was told that if he hired "one of those," all 18 of his mostly WWII vet employees, would quit. My father was no fool and neither were they for their time. It was the way it was in 1955. One got further along more quickly not being a Catholic too.

    When I was 17 in 1963, in our way upstate town race was still a no no topic of polite conversation. "It's too bad about all that trouble in the South," was about as far as it went. We were a "South Park" episode. It took a while to evolve at least on the surface. I have to wonder what it would be like even here if King had not been around.

    By the way; it made perfect sense for Blacks to call themselves Republicans in the South. From Lincoln, through the Civil Rights act, the "Solid South" politicians had to call themselves a iffy form of Democrat until the mostly one-eighty in the 1960s.

  20. unclemike Says:

    My mother (who I would never consider a racist) and I went to the movies a few days ago and, during dinner, she asked out of the blue: "Martin Luther King gets a holiday, how come we never have any holidays for white people?"

    For once, I had no sarcastic comment–I just stared at her.

  21. Green Eagle Says:

    I am old enough to remember MLK when he was still alive. The elements of his beliefs and actions that were unpalatable to the people in charge have been ignored since the very beginning. The turning of MLK into an inoffensive teddy bear figure was going on even before he was killed.

  22. Xynzee Says:

    Anubis: I'd like to offer one small edit, it's not just US racism or (insert offensive behaviour here), it's a universal trait. H

    Of course MLK was a "Republican". Given that the Rs were the ones who wrote the Civil Rights Act, the Dems in the South were the Party of the Klan—a fist fight broke out during the first radio coverage of the 1920(?) Dem convention b/c the Southerners wanted a full Klansman to be the candidate that year—so it only fits.

    I agree, today it's worse. Far better to have open, hot racism than the one that hides under a rock waiting to surface.

  23. MS Says:

    St. Patrick's Day is that "white pride" holiday, also 4th of July.

    Racism in the U.S. went straight from

    "What are the niggers complaining about now? They're not our equals and never will be, and everyone knows it."

    to

    "What are the niggers complaining about now? They've gotten everything they could want, full equality and free Cadillacs and Obamaphones too."

    without any intervening space.

  24. eau Says:

    Xynzee beat me to it, but there's nothing American about racism. It's universal, and it's insidious. I do agree that it's getting better, and we're (hopefully) just enduring a swing to the right from ol' pendulum at the moment. Push back from the forces that be, and how progressives deal with said pushback, has always been a big part of progress. And as someone said above, it always seems to flair up when folks start talking about economic equality. Strange, that.

  25. el mago Says:

    Wasn't going to add to the discussion, but both Xynzee and eau echoed my first reaction, which is racism is universal. As a white skinned dude in Latin America, I experienced it. As a white skinned dude in a white country (Spain) I felt it. Difference is that in the US, it's bigger and institutionalized in a country that is fully institutionalized from birth to death. Prisons. Don't have to be incarcerated to experience prisons, although not the kind of sick shit that happens in actual lock up situations. I don't despair, yet at the same time I can't agree with eau's analysis that improvement is on the rise. I would like to believe that a critical mass of bodhisattvas will effect change, but remain unconvinced at this juncture. Human ignorance remains thick.

  26. railsplitter Says:

    "We've traded brutal, immoral honesty for a delusion that has made us more bitter by the day"

    Hats off Ed. Great summation.

    The Letter from a Birmingham Jail embodies the intellectual strength, fearless honesty, and perserverance that defines MLK.

    Most importantly, the letter to me represents the intellectual rigor and rhetoric of a classically trained scholar. He destroys the major arguments for inequality using the core of Christian theology. He then submits the brutally honest question to the "White Church" (How long should we wait to receive the freedoms paid for in Blood 100 years ago?).

    One could never fully appreciate/understand MLK without haven't read it. Go here for the Cliff Notes

    I believe the racial hatred we see today represents the dying rage of a former advantaged majority.

    But then again I could also be full of shit.

  27. eau Says:

    Damn. Xynzee said it first, railsplitter made the point better.

    So glad I chimed in to add…. Nothing.

  28. HoosierPoli Says:

    I think we handled the problem in our standard American way: we took a bunch of lip-service steps, declared the problem solved, and then treated anyone who still talked about it as a whining dead-ender.

    For example, no white person can say the word "nigger" without harsh approbation, but John Roberts can sit on the Supreme Court and declare with a straight face that affirmative action and voter protection laws hurt the freedom of black people.

  29. democommie Says:

    "ohn Roberts can sit on the Supreme Court and declare with a straight face that affirmative action and voter protection laws hurt the freedom of black people."

    And, since we still live in a relatively free country (fd: I'm WHITE) I can say that John Roberts is a hypocritical piece-of-shit.

    "My mother (who I would never consider a racist)"

    You prolly should. Just because someone is old, respectable and kind to most folks is no bar to letting them know that their views on others are reprehensible.

  30. fasteddie Says:

    this ties into this spot-on comment from the other day http://www.ginandtacos.com/2015/01/13/prisoners-dilemma/#comment-413920

    we make honest poverty in this country suck so profoundly that any treatment of prisoners that rises above inhumane disturbs the whole system. Give a prisoner education? What about the honest kid on the outside who gets no education and has to go into debt at the community college? Employment counseling? What about the high schoolers with no records who dumped into the job market with no marketable skills? Etc.
    Basically, most sensible policies that would make prison redemptive will seem like a reward compared to how we treat the working poor.

    The point here being that "working poor" is the the default economic condition of Brown people in this country. We can't have decent public education because then Brown people will be educated. We can't have universal healthcare because then Brown people will be healthy. We can't have higher minimum wages because maybe then Brown people would be able to save and start businesses.

    Jim Crow just got a new suit and calls himself James.

  31. anotherbozo Says:

    @damocommie: if perchance you come back to read these last comments, be advised that Mark Twain was the most passionate of ANTI-racists. But you should find that out before Huckleberry Finn ends. Note especially the line: "All right then, I'll go to hell." Huck spoke for Twain.

    http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/huck-finn-hell

  32. democommie Says:

    "be advised that Mark Twain was the most passionate of ANTI-racists."

    Perhaps; I've not decided one way or the other. I've read Tom Sawyer, many years ago and, more recently, "Innocents Abroad". Twain was, first and foremost, a writer. His private views are not necessarily his public views nor those espoused by characters in his stories. I'll be thrilled if I ever know for certain that he was not.

  33. cromartie Says:

    Bad news. That "bitter, immoral honesty" was rooted in delusion.

    The whole country is fueled by delusion, and has been for most of its history. Not sure why this is anything new, or why you thought it was ever any different.

  34. witless chum Says:

    Eh, there's definitely progress in the sense that a black guy can be president or lead a Fortune 500 corporation or even have a job as a well-funded conservative crank.
    But Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out last year that black people haven't increased their proportional piece of total U.S. wealth at all since the Civil Rights Movement.

    That's not to say we need to throw away the idea that black actors get to be in TV commercials, too, but obviously those kind of feel-good, easy fixes aren't sufficient.