Celebrating MLK with Lessons from Obama’s Inauguration

A couple of articles have inspired me to add a brief word about this MLK Day. (See Boyce Watkins at TheGrio.com) Hopefully, my words are in keeping with both the spirit and beliefs of Dr. King himself.

A year ago this week, I joined nearly 3 million people in the nation’s capital for the inauguration of President Obama. The entire week, especially inauguration day, encapsulated much of what I understand about the “civil rights” movement and Dr. King’s legacy. Being a child of the 1980s, my understanding of Dr. King and the movement is a contested conglomeration of familial discussions, white-frame “civil rights” history, and independent study. Like most people my age, I may well be more in touch with the myth than the memory of King.

The morning of the inauguration seemed to mirror King’s 1963 march. The crowd came from all over the country and braved extreme temperatures (if on opposite ends of the thermometer) with grace and enthusiasm. The millions on the Mall that morning were very conscious of the parallels between contemporary and 1963 events. I saw hundreds of middle-aged and elderly African Americans making their way to the service. Everyone was so appreciative of their presence and sacrifices. I am convinced no Black person over age 60 would have had to so much as touch the ground with her own feet if she did not want. It was truly a remarkable and unforgettable moment.

The event itself was a reflection of what we were all celebrating. In name, we were witnessing a ceremony centered on one man, Barack Obama. In truth, we were actually there to culminate and celebrate a massive, multiracial, cross-coalitional effort that we hoped would produce meaningful and lasting institutional change. Everyone cheered the new president, but we all shared stories of sustained local efforts to mobilize America’s oppressed classes. The mass effort and happy gathering reflect the hopeful imagery and activist narrative associated with Dr. King.

After partying with friends (and strangers), I decided it was time to go home. On the edge of one of D.C.’s many Black neighborhoods, I found myself in need of a cab to get home. After a few blocks, I reached a busy corner and tried hailing a cab. Despite the festive occasion, I received the same treatment we Black men (and women) receive all the time. Cab after cab passed me by and quickly picked up white passengers.

A young white woman, whose name I still do not know, witnessed the entire scene. The hour growing very late at this point, she confidently approached me with a brilliant offer. If I would use my status as Black and male to safely escort her to the next corner where she was meeting some friends, she would use her status as a white female to get me a cab. I quickly agreed. Within 30 seconds of connecting her with her friends, the white woman told me to follow her to a cab. She said she would hail the cab and when the cabbie opened the door for her (a taken for granted response), I was to jump in. Local law, apparently, prevented cabbies from evicting passengers without cause. Needless to say, she executed the plan flawlessly and got me home without at hitch.

The past year, like inauguration day itself, is a microcosm of Dr. King’s life and legacy. Having won symbolic federal victories and peering briefly over the mountain at the potential for meaningful change. We forgot that these victories required massive mobilization and sustained multiracial, cross-class effort. Instead, we allowed white media to attribute the work to one man, and we left that man to carry it out virtually alone. In life, Dr. King never labored alone. But the mythological legacy recast him as a great man, producing systemic change through personal will and determination alone. That myth, now thrown onto Obama, has left Obama to labor alone (to the extent he actually wants to). Obama’s isolation is evidenced by the general failure of the DNC to remobilize the massive campaign volunteers in support of the president’s agenda (see NYT article “Health Debate Fails to Ignite Obama’s Grassroots” and The Washington Post’s “Obama’s Machine Sputters in Effort to Push Budget” for examples.

Part of the reason the multiracial grassroots effort “sputters” also parallels King’s life and legacy. Despite the rhetoric of the times, neither the day-to-day structure of the United States remained then and now. My anecdote about getting a cab makes the case for the moment of Obama’s inauguration. As Dr. Watkins’s points out, “Dr. King was very unpopular at the time of his death” as he tried to realize the goals outlined in his speeches. Whites never fully embraced King in life. Their support for his impotent corpse and white-framed memory would not convince Dr. King.

Obama’s situation is similar. As Harvey-Wingfield and Feagin (2010) document, the majority of whites voted against now President Obama. A recent article in The New York Times () documents whites’ increasing opposition to Obama:

According to an analysis of New York Times and CBS News polls, Obama has the lowest approval rating among whites at the end of his first year in office than any president in the 30 years that The Times and CBS News have collected such data. And the gap between Obama and the others is significant, ranging from 10 to 36 percentage points.

Like Israelites in the wilderness, whites dream of Egypt, a plurality saying Obama is a worse president than George W. Bush.

This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I hope and pray we will learn the lessons Dr. King taught us. Regardless of what the majority of people say, progressive American rhetoric remains miles ahead of its deeds (see King’s brilliant sermon “Paul’s Letter to American Christians”) and gradualism is not the answer. Only collective action, creative and sustained civil disobedience, and mobilization of people of color and poor–for whom cooptation and/or cessation are not viable options—are the only potential means for achieving and sustaining real and systemic change.

Obama’s Inauguration & A New Era of Learning about Racism

A glorious moment after 8 years of dumbing downEveryone, it seems, has high hopes for the new Obama administration.  My hope is that this marks the beginning of a new era of learning about racism. If the news coverage of President Obama’s inauguration is any indication, then there is a steep learning curve ahead for the predominantly white media.

President Obama’s inaugural address (Creative Commons License photo credit: Wolf Gang) never referred to the martyrs of abolition and the civil rights movement that made his ascent possible, and made only the slightest, passing reference to the racist discrimination in the U.S. when he said:

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed – why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

Fortunately, both Rev. Lowery’s benediction and the inaugural poet, Elizabeth Alexander, referenced this legacy. In Alexander’s inaugural poem she said:

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

If there were a press that was well-versed in American history, we might have had journalists who were filling in some of details of that legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and present-day institutional discrimination.  Yet, very few news outlets made any reference to the fact that enslaved Africans and African Americans, who counted as only 3/5’s of a person in the U.S. Constitution, built both the White House and the US Capitol.

However, a number of the predominantly white, mainstream news outlets have begun to note an ever-so-slight shift in the cultural zeitgeist for talking about issues of race.   For example, The New York Times in a recent piece in the “style” section, declared that it’s now “OK to talk about race,” because President Obama offers a comfortable way for whites to approach a topic that they generally regard as taboo.    And, the Washington Post noted the shifting social scene in D.C.,  observing that whites and blacks will now mingle socially because:

“With a black first family in the White House and a diverse group of appointees and Cabinet nominees, the all-white dinner party feels all wrong.”

Fascinating.  So, day before yesterday, an all-white dinner party felt so right?   In another example, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow acknowledged on her show the night before the inauguration (h/t to Michelle Rediker for the exact quote),

“The good news is that the first African American is being sworn in as president that that means the media will talk about race. The bad news is that the first African American is being sworn in as president and that means the media will talk about race. We really are not that good at that good at this. Notice I said ‘we’? Ok a little humility here is in order. Why do we so often fail at talking well about this most important of topics? Well, Princeton Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell will be here to talk about….”

In the rest of the cringe-worthy interview, Maddow asks Harris-Lacewell if the Obama inauguration ushers in a ‘grace period’ for whites in talking about race.   Harris-Lacwell deftly handles the Maddow’s quesiton, acknowledging that black people always have a ‘grace period’ in place for talking to white people about race, “we get asked about our hair, that sort of thing” she said.  As refreshing as it is to see any African American woman consulted as an expert on one of the major networks (and Harris-Lacewell is extremely smart and telegenic), Maddow’s clumsy forays into discussions of race are telling.   Like her counterparts, the other white journalists at The New York Times and the Washington Post, Maddow still approaches the subject of race from within the white racial frame.  Within this frame it is only blacks who “have race” and thus, whites need blacks to come on the show to educate the uncomfortable and unenlightened white host.  I have to confess that I’m a huge fan of Maddow’s (she’s wicked smart, the first out-lesbian Rhodes Scholar and holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Oxford), so it pains me to see her struggle so publicly with this blind spot.  In my view, Maddow has a tremendous opportunity to lead the way for white liberals and show them how to get smart about issues of race and racism.

Maddow asks the rhetorical question:  Why do we so often fail at talking well about this most important of topics? Yet, she seems unable to answer this question.

The answer to that question is “we” fail because “we” don’t know the history of racism in this country.   Of course, the “we” in both the quesiton and answer here refers to white people.  And, “we” white people need a new era of learning about racism.  The Obama Presidency is an opportunity for white people, especially white people in the mainstream press, to educate themselves about both the history of racism and the present-day reality of racism in the U.S. and around the world.

Some are suggesting that the end of the Bush regime with the inauguration of a president who is the author of two books and a former law professor, signals the end of America’s love affair with stupidity.   I hope this is true.  I also hope that this love of ignorance about America’s pervasive problem with race and racism is over, too.   In one of the many lists that are making the round of the Internet these days, one caught my attention, called the “7 Things You Can Do To Help Obama Restore America. (h/t Jakrose via Twitter).  Number 4 on this list is “Learn American History.”  I like that as an action step, but it needs to be amended to be “African American History,” as this is where all the stuff about race and racism usually gets stashed.  As Joe writes in the opening to his book, Systemic Racism:

“Do you Know who Ann Dandridge, Wilism Costin, West Ford, and John Custis were? Very few Americans can answer this question in the affirmative.  Yet these Americans should be well known, for they were all close relatives of George and Martha Washington.”

As he goes on to recount, these were also enslaved people whose names are largely unknown.  Until we understand the intricate ways that race and racism are woven into every aspect of the U.S., from George Washington through to Barack Obama, from those who “picked the cotton and the lettuce,” from those who built the White House and who clean and serve in it today, to those who now live in it, we’ll remain struck dumb, literally rendered mute by our inability to talk about race and racism.  It’s new day for learning about racism.

The Dream and the Election

Art Gallery window, GeorgetownToday, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the first black president of the United States (Creative Commons License photo credit: runneralan2004 ). The inauguration ceremony will take place the day after the nation commemorates the birth of our greatest civil rights leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  As Jessie noted in her post yesterday, many of us are contemplating this confluence of events.   What would Dr. King say about the nation now that it has elected a black man as its forty-fourth president?  Would he say that “the Dream” has been fulfilled, that America has finally become a post-racial society? Would he advise little black boys and girls that they no longer have to deal with the unspoken or spoken belief that opportunities are limited by race?

If Dr. King were alive today, he certainly would have a front row seat at the inauguration ceremony. His mind would probably race through the defining moments in African American history.  He would see generations after generations of blacks in the prime of their lives being hunted down like animals, separated from their families and villages, and loaded onto ships anchored off the coast of West African. We would feel the pain of his ancestors who were packed like sardines into the belly of these ships for the long voyage to America and then forced to work from dawn to dusk for over two centuries just to provide economic and social comfort for white Americans. Going through the mind of the very old Dr. King would be the words of the nation’s highest court written with such unabashed racism in the Dred Scott decision (1856):

“the negro had  for more than a century been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and so the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”

Dr. King might remind himself that Chief Justice Taney’s words were merely reflective of the attitudes of the vast majority of white Americans toward blacks at the time. He might quiver as he thought about the magnitude of the hatred whites had for blacks and the incredible amount of social disadvantage that racism placed in the lives of blacks both enslaved and free blacks alike.

Sitting in the January cold, the elderly Dr. King would also reflect upon post-slavery America.  Especially now, it is difficult to fathom that, but for a brief period of reconstruction, slavery was not replaced by a system of equal rights. The system of racial savery folded into a regime of racially repressive laws in the South and racially repressive social norms in the North. These Jim Crow laws and customs were constitutionalized by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).  Jim Crow forced blacks into the worst jobs, the worst housing, the worst educational systems, and the worst social position.

Dr. King must feel a warm sensation as he thinks about mid-twentieth century America. After the Second World War (the war to save free societies), most intelligent Americans knew that Jim Crow’s days were numbered. Dr. King played a central role in the eventual death of Jim Crow. But the Supreme Court struck the first significant blow against this regime of racial oppression when in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) the Court overturned school segregation laws in every state of the Union. With the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s and early 1970s, Congress struck the final blow, killing de jure segregation and outlawing racial discrimination in most segments of American life.

The death of Jim Crow has brought unprecedented racial opportunities for blacks. There are many wealthy and influential black Americans (such as the oft-cited Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and the black captains of industry) as well as many political successes, including black congresspersons, governors, presidential appointees, and now, of course, the presidency itself with the election of Barack Obama.

Dr. King would certainly acknowledge African-American racial progress. But he would probably be more concerned about the great racial challenges still facing the nation. He would be troubled by the fact that, even as the first black president of the United States is being sworn in: about 21% of black families (compared to only 6% of white families) live below the poverty line, the median annual family income for whites is $26,000 higher than that for blacks; white males with bachelor or advanced degrees earn about $20,000 a year more than their black male counterparts; young black men are seven times more likely to go to prison than young white men, and less than half as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than young white men; and the median net worth (bank accounts, stocks, bonds,  real estate, and other assets) of white families is ten time more than that of black families.

As the very old and very wise Dr. King takes in the events of this historic day, he can only conclude that America is far from being a post-racial society.  The election does not complete “the Dream,” it only keeps it alive.

~ Roy L. Brooks
Warren Distinguished Professor of Law
University of San Diego – School of Law

President-elect’s Poet: Elizabeth Alexander

At Slate’s online site, Meghan O’Rourke, has a brief article reminding us that President-elect Obama has picked a prize-winning, provocative African American poet, Elizabeth Alexander, to read at his inauguration ceremony. He is one of few presidents ever to invite a poet for such a task.

O’Rourke notes that Yale Professor Alexander has four books,

the last, American Sublime, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A professor of African-American studies at Yale (from which she also matriculated), Alexander writes poems that are metaphorically and linguistically dense, layered, and subtle. Her work speaks about black experience. . . .But she can’t be said to privilege identity politics over aesthetics; her poems work more at being complex than didactic. In this sense, she’s an analogue to Obama, who doesn’t privilege identity politics over his strategy of inclusiveness.

Among other important works, Alexander has written a powerful poem about the extreme oppression visited on the enslaved African woman, Saartjie Baartman (1789-1815), whom virulently racist European whites termed the “The Venus Hottentot.” She was a Khoikhoi woman enticed by promises of splitting her earnings by the brother of her Dutch slaveowner in Africa if she would go to Europe to be physically exhibited to whites. Put on as a sideshow exhibit in Britain and France, she was forced to exhibit naked. After she died of illness in Europe in 1815, her remains– skeleton, genitals, and brain–were displayed by and for European “scientists” like an animal’s remains in a prominent Paris museum–even until the mid-1970s! Yet another aspect of the “Western civilization” some of our leading pundits like to brag about.

In her poem Alexander attacks this extreme exploitation and its associated scientific racism more eloquently that we can ever put into prose. I recommend the portion of her poem posted on her website here. Her GrayWolf press collection, The Venus Hottentot is described here.