My vow this winter on my frequent sojourns to Florida was to read lots of biographies there. I always have a hundred or more books backed up waiting for me to read and biographies are a prime category. So far I have covered Jann Wenner, Neitzsche, Paul Newman, and Lou Reed. And I just finished the new book on Martin Luther King, one of the public figures I have always admired. The biography is an intense reminder of how horrendous daily life was for African-Americans. In the South they faced legalized racism, literally treated as second-class citizens in every respect, enforced by violence at the slightest real or imagined wrongdoing. In the rest of the country, the laws may not have been as bad, but the treatment of African-Americans was. Ralph Ellison wrote a book called Invisible Man, and that title pretty much said it all. People didn’t want to see what was being done to African-Americans, they wanted to ignore it and not be bothered, they did not want to empathize with what it had to be like to live as an African-American in the United States.
And when the movement for equality got going in the 1950s and 1960s, it was met with the most violent and virulent forms of racism. A lot of time could be spent on the sociological and psychological forces behind racism and segregation and unequal treatment. But the plain fact is that it is wrong, it is despicable, it is indefensible, it is unjustifiable, it violates what must be viewed as a fundamental human right. And in the United States, founded on a glowing promise of equality before the law, equality of opportunity, equality in being treated with dignity and respect; it was appalling. It was and is a national disgrace that it took so long after the Civil War for this institutionalized racism to be confronted.
From an early age, the Reverand King was determined to be the one to confront this injustice and his short life was dedicated to that end. He was steadfast in his Christian adherence to principles of non-violence and brotherly love. His dedication meant that he had no real personal life, little time to enjoy his family, his children, to engage in personal pursuits. Particularly after he became the visible symbol of the movement to achieve equality of treatment under the law, his every waking hour, and he seldom slept, was devoted to that movement. Such greatness deserved a full life, which in its twilight years could have been spent in relaxed enjoyment of all that had been accomplished. Instead he was yet another force for needed change to be shot down by those who cannot tolerate such change.
And as often seems to happen, while much progress has occurred, the civil rights movement has become perverted, and following the George Floyd case, increasingly destructive to the cause of treating people as individuals, giving every individual equal opportunity for success and judging them on behavior, not skin color, sex, religion, ethnic background or other irrelevant characteristic. African-Americans have achieved success; we have had an African-American President and many other high officials, there is more opportunity across the jobs spectrum. But glaring failures exist in the movement, primarily a turn toward racism and voluntary segregation and the loss of values of family, fatherhood, education and work.
Anger among African-Americans at their treatment for generations should be expected, forceful action to redress those wrongs should be expected, anger at the white people who perpetrated or ignored the mis-treatment should be expected. What cannot be accepted, what Dr. King would not accept, what does not advance the cause of equality and brotherhood, of a real advance in the human condition, are racist attitudes and behaviors by African-Americans towards other races, which are now widespread and include violent attacks on people because they are white or Asian or some other race or background. We also see a turning away from recognition that we do live in an increasingly pluralistic and mixed society–racially, religiously, by ethnic background–and a desire by many African-American leaders to create and enforce the voluntary segregation of African-Americans; the establishment of a separate society.
Perhaps this is unavoidable. As far as I can tell, the history of humans is one of constant conflict over land and resources and because of skin color, religion, or ethnic background. It seems to be ingrained in us to view people as these characteristics and to associate good or bad qualities with them, whether accurate or not, whether representative of a specific individual or not. The absolute barbarity displayed by one group of humans to another because they are black, they are Jewish, they are Uighurs, they are Rohingya, they are Tutsis, they are Christians, they are Ukrainians, they are Armenians, or any other excuse is depressing and spurs immense pessimism about our future. The only better way forward I know is for every person to acknowledge the human tendency to engage in this kind of tribalism and stereotypying and to make a conscientious effort to judge people by their behavior alone. And no nation can be truly just that does not scrupulously make and apply the laws and rules which goven its citizens without any regard to these immutable characteristics which have little to do with behavior.
And much of the African-American community today accepts, even encourages horrific behavior. Trying to do well in school is “white”. Being a father to children you procreate is unnecessary. Constantly portraying oneself as a victim and entitled to college, to degrees, to jobs without developing the appropriate skills or knowledge is the norm. Committing crimes, but not being arrested or tried for them is acceptable, even though most of those crimes are committed against other African-Americans, including the internecine murder of thousands of young men. No group can improve its quality of life when these are the values and attitudes it adopts and justifies.
How much different would the history of America have been if Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, Dr. King, or Robert Kennedy had not been killed? We don’t and can’t know, but the movement Dr. King started and lived for, indeed gave his life for, has a far different and more pernicious vision today than he ever would have accepted. It is racist; it makes excuses for bad behavior and lack of personal responsibility; it expects African-Americans to just be given everything, without learning, without skills, without experience, without work. The pushback against these expectations is well-deserved. The leaders of the African-American community today are shallow hypocrites. Unless and until that community gets better leadership, visionaries in the mold of Reverand King, don’t expect substantial progress toward a truly more just, harmonious society.