Staff Editorial – In the wake of MLK day
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In America just as many of our holidays are centered on the memorialization of dead men as are centered on the celebration of present life. A small percentage of us enjoy the ability to take these days off to ruminate on the irony of Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledged in a federal holiday only a few months away from Christopher Columbus, who is somehow still held in just as great of esteem by most first grade classes.
But this year as I scrolled through my Facebook feed, presented with an array of MLK quotes and photos, I got a queasy feeling in my stomach. The same individuals who, only months earlier, railed against the population of Ferguson, Mo for “overreacting” to one of their young adults being executed in the street without due process or a trial, were publicly displaying the more politically correct, pacifistic words of an activist who only fifty years earlier, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” reprimanded the line of thought that led people to “prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
Many white Americans believe that racism is a phenomenon relegated to the history books. Their frame of reference being as limited as it is, it is not hard to understand why, but as I found myself lying still on the linoleum floor of the University of Nevada Reno’s Knowledge Center this past December, in a “die-in” protesting the non-indictments and deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, with a student attempting to spit on the protestors from the balcony above, I realized what the racial justice movement is to most white Americans; unimportant. A joke.
According to the Center for Global Policy in their 2014 report ‘Beyond Broke,’ the racial wealth gap is staggering. An African-American family will, on average, only make seven cents to every dollar a white family makes. One in three African-American men will go to jail at some point in their life, a rate that is over five times that of white incarceration. Ferguson, Missouri, in the news recently because of the shooting of Michael Brown, is a predominantly black town with a population of 21,135. In 2013 32,975 arrest warrants were served in Ferguson for nonviolent offenses, generating $2.5 million dollars in legal revenue for the city.
Statistics like these exist outside of the frame of reference for most white Americans. Even acknowledging their truth can be a stretch of the imagination to some.
They seem like a reality that is far off, distant, happening somewhere else. Something that couldn’t possibly be true, or traceable to a pervasive dynamic of political and societal racism that we have a hand in perpetuating.
On Martin Luther King Day I did not see my friends and family members talking about or even acknowledging these well-researched statistics.
I found them regurgitating quotes from King such as “I have decided to stick to love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” and “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” without possessing the background knowledge required to understand the context and significance of these quotes in their relation to the fight for social justice that King championed.
It is for this reason that I do not believe Martin Luther King and his teachings should be limited to a day of instruction in our public and private schools, or used as a reason to post another quote on Facebook.
This day is a marker, and a challenge, for white America to educate itself on the ramifications of the actions of our ancestors.
To teach African-American studies in our schools. To address the overwhelming racial wealth gap. This is why Ferguson’s fight is our fight. Whether we like it or not, we perpetuate the legacy of those who came before us. It is up to us to lift our blinders and set about the hard work of building a more just society.