If MLK's life and career were taking place today, he probably would not be assassinated. And that's a bad sign.
One of the most insidious challenges we face in the fight for equality is the quasi-progressive notion that America has "grown up" and is now "post-racial." Yes, we've replaced Jim Crow with Civil Rights; yes, there has been a general shift in attitude toward interracial couples, integration of work forces and schools, and so on. But speaking as a white man, I submit that among many whites who are sympathetic to it, the general "pro-black" attitude is nothing more than a fad. We listen to rap, and admire black athletes, eat soul food, even hit all the right talking points . . . we integrate when and where we're told to do so.
But have our habits really changed? Do we think of "ourselves" as blacks-and-whites, one big community? Do we make even nominal efforts, of our own accord, to eradicate the Othering disease of segregation, in our neighborhoods, our businesses, our daily dealings . . . our own minds? Do we seek to understand and celebrate diversity in a manner that extends beyond cherry-picking cultural appropriation?
Instead, it seems, we have simply adopted an unchallenging, laissez-faire attitude toward improving race relations. In the name of tolerance, we have steadfastly maintained an integration that ultimately is superficial by definition -- as long as the pro-diversity trappings are visible in some nebulous form, we are content; we rarely insist on unpacking the depth and seriousness of what real, inward integration means.
Why haven't Barber, and Coates, and Garza, Tometi, and Cullors, and so many others, been awarded the same household-name status that MLK was? Probably in part it's because King occupies his own stratosphere. But maybe it's also because in the twenty-first century, even supposedly "pro-black" white America sees these figures and says, "Good for them. The black community needs such leaders. I'm so glad someone is doing that important work."
As if we have no part in the work. As if it's not a segment of our own community that suffers and needs healing and guidance; as if it's not another part of our own community that has caused -- is causing -- the suffering. As if the problem, and thus the solution, are confined to the victimized group, and not the direct result of that group's intersection and involvement with our own. Hey, we're not suffering, so why should we get involved?
This, my white friends, is privilege. Even in our most activist moments, we don a cause like a fashionable hat, briefly, until we exhaust our emotional reserves; then, when it suits us, we retreat to the comfort of our white, cushy cloud of isolation, so to recover from our (ahem) heartache. But the real victims never have such an option. When they're tired and dismayed, the job only gets harder; it never goes away. Retreat literally is not an option.
Let's ask ourselves: If MLK were working today, would we receive him as a true American leader? Or just as a really great black leader? Would he be worth the assassin's bullet in the eyes of his detractors, or just another liberal of color with an axe to grind?
What other desperately-needed voices are speaking passionately, but still languish behind their black skin and our self-gratifying veneer of tolerance?
Let's remind ourselves that this is not about us. Let's allow, indeed, invite those who suffer to speak for themselves. Let's entertain the possibility that such voices represent the best not just in "their" community, but in OURS -- all of ours. Let's let them be our voices, so that when we say "us," we include them.
Let's stop being easy-chair activists. If this is a cause we believe in, it's time to make real sacrifices in its name. It's time to change ourselves, even as we work to change the world.