Last Friday I was wearing a shirt with a big #18 on the front. An African-American friend at work looked at it and said, “Oh, you’re wearing that in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr Day on the 18th, right?”
“Um … yeah, yeah that’s right!” (Actually it was in honor of my favorite sports team, which I’m sure he knew, but I digress.)
For many, Dr. King is as much of an American hero as Washington or Lincoln. President Washington is the best known avatar of American independence, as was President Lincoln for the abolition of slavery and the continuance of Union.
Dr. King fought for the rights of black Americans at a time when society would not allow them to vote, the most basic right in a democracy. They were bared from equal access to housing, to jobs, to an education, all basic freedoms. They were even barred from the same bathrooms, water fountains, bus seats and restaurants. Dr. King fought for those rights with non-violence, and protest and prayer. He did all this without the powerful title of President. And he gave up his life for his cause.
In the same decade that Dr. King gave his “I have a dream” speech, a black boy was born who would one day be elected president of the United States. Not once, but twice. Core legislation was passed like the Voting Rights Act to ensure that abuses of power by the white majority could not keep black people from voting. I’m very proud of my company, Intel Corporation, for adding MLK Day as an added holiday for US-based employees.
Is Dr. King’s dream a reality? Is his work finished in our lifetime? A lot of people would like to think it is. That we live in a post-racial reality.
But when the voting rights act can be gutted by the courts and not replaced by congress, the work is not finished.
When law enforcement can end the lives of black people disproportionally to white, the work is not finished.
When a state like Oregon can surveil people because they use the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, the work is not finished.
When a popular candidate for President can spew bigotry and hatred, the work is not finished.
When white people get jobs because of who they know rather than what they are capable of, the work is not finished.
I know many white Americans, even friends of mine, who think that they got to their positions of respect and authority by working hard and sacrificing. Who think a hand-out or a hand up is not justified for those who did not work as hard. To those folks, I wish to lovingly say “baloney“. We got to where we are because we inherited it. Yes there was hard work involved, but we were never beaten by a police baton for wanting to vote. I know I probably won’t convince you, but I hope you will think twice about this.
What can a white American do to honor Dr. King’s legacy? (Best to say, what can I do).
- Listen. The best meaning people in the world often think they know the answers before asking the question. Listen to people of color and try to understand and empathize.
- Respect. Stop your humor that denigrates anyone of color. It’s not funny and it hurts people. Stop it.
- Help. You are in a position of power, so look for opportunities to connect and help, not as some kind of white father figure. Don’t help in ways which insult. And don’t look for anyone to thank you. It’s what you should be doing anyway.