SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – I usually keep my writings somewhat light, yet today strikes me as being a very special one for us to think about in more serious terms. As the nation marks Martin Luther King’s Birthday, and recalls his famous “I have a dream” speech, one cannot help but wonder whether we, as a society, have really made so much as a dent in the choking yoke of oppression in America, and throughout the world. Some would say an emphatic YES! They would point to the meteoric rise of African American culture in the last fifty years; they would point to our African American President and Governor; and would, perhaps say that when glimpsed in a rear view mirror of whites only water fountains, that we have completely solved the problems of racism in America.
While we most certainly have come a long way, I often wonder if we have come nearly far enough. Look for a moment at the vast innovations in technology we have seen in these fifty years. We have gone from clunky aircraft, to landing on the moon. We have seen our students go from Jack and Jill textbooks, to interactive learning apps on their iPads. We have evolved as a society from one in which my “whole world” as a child in the 60′s, was the block from Acme Street, to Bellevue Ave. That was it…my world, in a nutshell. Now, a child thinks nothing of corresponding with “a friend” in another country, and to them, that friendship is just as powerful as mine was with the 4 friends who lived on my street. Yes, we have certainly evolved technologically by a factor of 1000, but has our view of different societies, different beliefs, different cultures, grown to the same extent? I don’t believe so.
Is it possible now that King’s dream of people being judged “…not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character…” has finally been realized at last? The answer is not as clear as one might think. For those of us living here in Shrewsbury, I believe that this dream has come true. My children have grown up in a micro-world in which they just don’t even think of race or culture as having anything to do with who someone may be as a person. A sleepover at my house looks much like the UN, with people of all races and religions, all of them blissfully unaware that there are any differences between them at all. That is, to me, the ultimate evolution of King’s dream, not the “acceptance of the race of others,” but rather the complete blindness to those differences. It would just never occur to them that their “black friend, or their muslim friend, or their Korean friend” is coming over to hang out – it’s just “their friend,” and that is, for me, the greatest joy of all.
As you leave our little suburban area, however, things are often vastly different, and it merely takes a minute to look around those areas and see just how different life is for many individuals both in major cities, and around the world. Would Trayvon Martin have been “suspicious” to Zimmerman if he was white? Would the case have so outraged the african-american community if Zimmerman were black, as well? Would our interest in Aaron Hernandez be different if he or his alleged victim were black? Do black men and women really still have “the talk.” with their young children? Would some be calling Snowden a heroic whistle-blower” if he were a Muslim who’s parents grew up in Iran? Do people who travel for business want us to believe that they feel no different when surrounded by middle-eastern passengers, or that they don’t look at them differently?
Many would surmise that if Dr. King could come back to earth for a day and see how far we have come, he would be pleased beyond belief to find that his dream had been realized, and yet I doubt that would be the case at all. Perhaps he would visit Washington, D.C., as a guest of President Obama, and be taken aback by a society that has solved the issue of racism forever, but then he would have to go back to his hotel and see the “real world.” He would walk the streets of D.C., and see how many are still impoverished, persecuted, and segregated if not by law, then by circumstances, and he would wonder how this is possible in a nation that had elected leaders from different races. In the 1960′s, it was far easier to define right from wrong. The Governor who sought to keep blacks out of white schools was crazy, as were the police who turned their dogs on those engaged in peaceful protest, or a community that thought nothing about forcing blacks to the back of the bus. The people tolerating such things were clearly in the wrong, and if you were so clueless as to not realize it then, surely you must see it now. To some extent, however, King might have a tougher time coping with how leaders of color, and we members of a so-called civilized and intellectually society, still allow some things, perhaps just as abhorrent, to exist.
This is by no means limited to issues of black and white, but countless other areas in which many fail to embrace and treasure the differences that make us all, who we are. One need only take a look at the ongoing debate over same-sex marriage to understand my point. To this day, same sex couples are, at best, a “protected class,” and at worst, a “non-protected class,” and yet I wonder why are they a “class” at all. Why can’t everyone just be free to do what they want, free of the judgement of others, and viewed just like everyone else. Why does one person marrying someone they love threaten, in the minds of some, the “institution of marriage?” I mean really, are we saying that heterosexuals have mastered the art of marriage, in a nation where more than half of them end in divorce?
Would King be proud of what we are doing to try and improve matters? Is it possible that, perhaps, the very things that have been done to seemingly rid ourselves of racism, have evolved into institutions that may actually be doing more to contribute to the problem. One need only look at things like hiring practices, or college admissions, to glimpse the fact that we are, in some cases, moving backwards from that dream of people being judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Some would say it was affirmative action or quota’s, and others reverse discrimination of sort. An article in the Princeton University newspaper found that a persons race has an even greater impact then their standardized test scores. This study followed a suit by an Asian applicant who was not admitted, and said in part that “According to the data, not all races are considered equal in the college admissions game…, African-American applicants with SAT scores of 1150 had the same chances of being accepted as white applicants with 1460s and Asian applicants with perfect 1600s.” The data implied that Asian applicants were held to a standard which other races were not, stating that “he found a 140-point SAT score discrepancy between accepted white and Asian students.” This was so far removed from King’s vision of a truly color-blind society. Of course, the antithesis of this is the fact that some now just assume racism until proven otherwise. I had a friend several years ago who ran a major organization with tens of thousands of employees. There was a senior job opening, and one of the applicants was African American. After several rounds of interviews with an entire hiring committee, a candidate was selected who was caucasian. Immediately, a newspaper story ran, that went almost as far as to accuse my friend of being a racist. After posting a comment on that newspapers blog in his defense, I called him at home, and tongue in cheek wondered how he explained his supposed racism to his bi-racial family! I mean really, did anyone at the paper think to look at the family Christmas card first?
In any event, and getting back to the purpose of the article, I cannot help but wonder to myself, “What would King say?” I clearly have no way of knowing. I can only surmise though, based on his words and teachings, that he would feel that we have not gone nearly far enough as a nation, towards the goals we set out over 200 years ago, that will live in a nation where “all men are created equal…and are endowed with certain inalienable rights, among them, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I think he would be stunned that we allow the wholesale slaughter of thousands around the world, unless we have something to gain from it. He would wonder why we were so quick to deploy to Saudi Arabia, yet allowed mass genocide in Darfur. Perhaps he would guide us towards an even grander vision, or just throw up his hands and think that maybe this is as good as it gets. We will never know.
As we celebrate the birthday of this great visionary, it falls on us all to redouble our efforts to find ways to make that dream a reality, in our government, in our society, and in our hearts. We can do this with our actions in every day life, with our commentary among each other, and mostly by raising our children to be a generation of tolerance, devoid of any judgements of others. I have no doubt that if we took 1000 5 year old children from each country in the middle east, and raised them together in a giant community of peace and love, they would return to their nations as adults and plant the seeds of respect and tolerance that would change the world. For children have, by nature, nothing but love for others. Anything beyond that, they learn from their surroundings, and so the education of those children will always be the biggest contribution one can make to creating a world where people truly are free to live without judgement and mistrust, and walk amongst each other as equals.
If you have a moment today, either to honor Dr King, or just for your own edification, I encourage you to watch his speech, in it’s entirety. THere is so much more to it than the oft-quoted “I have a dream passage,” and honestly it is just as relevant today as it was those 50 years ago. Perhaps from his words, we can take on as Lincoln said “increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their last full measure of devotion” and bring upon our nation a “just and lasting peace.”