Martin Luther King Day: Lady Liberty is Black

The United States released a gold coin featuring Lady Liberty as a Black woman on this day in 2017, the first time she has been depicted as anything other than white on the nation’s currency.

“Part of our intent was to honor our tradition and heritage,” stated a spokesperson from the Mint. “But we also think it’s always worthwhile to have a conversation about liberty, and we certainly have started that conversation.”

Good for everyone. Only the most dark hearted could be upset that a fictional character is represented in any particular way. This can’t be bad. …Unless we acknowledge that America is apparently satisfied with “having conversations,” raising awareness about race, and various other symbolic gestures. The Academy Awards are coming up, and the Golden Globes just passed, and lots of people will be keeping track of how many are given out to non-white men and making much of the tally, their “much” depending on which side the scale tips. Gestures of all types are all good enough on their own, but they never really affect much. The issues of race stretch back to the Founders, well before we elected a Black president and then elected one who throws racist statements around on Twitter. We’re still dealing with the same questions. The same day the new liberty coin was announced in 2017, the Department of Justice released a terrifying report describing the failures throughout the Chicago Police Department, saying excessive force was rampant, rarely challenged and chiefly aimed at African-Americans and Latinos. The report was released as Chicago faces skyrocketing violence, with murders are at a 20-year high, and a deep lack of trust among the city’s Black and white residents. And yeah, of course, the police force is very, very white.

Where was this report a year ago, or eight years ago, or ten years ago? Because the implication here is that the Obama administration issued this in its final days, allowing it (and not any solution or progress) to be part of his legacy. Suspecting Trump will not make dealing with these issues a priority, Obama’s DOJ can take credit for “starting a conversation” about Chicago while walking away from the heavy lifting of helping fix it. DOJ might as well have issued a commemorative coin in lieu of the report. We all know the rest: 1 in every 15 African American men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, one in three Black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. Once convicted, Black offenders receive longer sentences compared to white offenders. You can find similar numbers for poverty (nearly a quarter of blacks are living in poverty, almost the same as in 1976), unemployment (double that of whites), life expectancy, and voter disenfranchisement.

Clearly over the last seven decades somebody could have fixed some of that. It can’t all be impossible.

Now, there has been some progress. America wrapped up formal slavery in 1865, only 76 years after the Bill of Rights. And then it was only another 100 some years before the Civil Rights laws tried hard to grant Blacks the rights the 1865 victory gave them. We don’t have lynchings and killings much anymore (though the Chicago PD keeps its hand in) and places that wish to discriminate against Blacks have to do it much more subtlety.

I’m not making light of suffering, but I am using sarcasm to show how angry I am about lack of real progress. We seem content to see presence as progress — first Black major leaguer, first Black Supreme Court Justice, first Black _____, first Black president. Again, there is nothing bad there, but now that the top box has been checked, what happens next?

In other words, we get Martin Luther King day as a Federal holiday while at the same time we don’t get the values King embodied. There you go. As one person put it “The Dr. King we choose to remember was indeed the symbolic beacon of the civil rights movement. But the Dr. King we forget worked within institutions to transform broken systems.” Change is not organic; it must be made to happen.

It is hard to come to any conclusion other than we as a society just don’t care. We seem satisfied with symbolic gestures, blowing them out of proportion while the real problems sit in plain sight, unattended. What people will characterize over the next four years as sliding backwards on racial progress seems more like business as usual, albeit without the eloquent speeches.

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