Happy belated Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It’s a day that feels like it just means more in Trump’s America, where ethnic minorities have reported increased incidents of harassment since this grandson of German immigrants took office. Of the 25 still active members of Congress who were there to vote in the 1980s to make MLK Day a holiday, 20 voted for it and five voted against it. From 2015, when John McCain was still with us
I’ve spent the last two years understanding more than I ever realized before about the nuances of racism in America: How white supremacy was woven into the ideological fabric of the nation’s founding documents and the founders themselves, and how over the course of the 20th Century “blatant racism” yielded to “latent racism,” letting racism live on in our culture and institutions in ways that continue to inflect lifelong trauma on its victims, but in ways that are less obvious to those who aren’t directly affected by racial oppression. Twenty-first Century racism exploits white people’s unconscious lack of empathy with minorities to hold the majority of people of color back from realizing their true potential, wrecking their lives and their families’ lives in the process.
I’m an outlier when it comes to white mainstream journalists who claim they aspire to see a more justice and equal society, in that I often see and openly acknowledge our industry’s shortcomings in helping the public understand these issues. I attribute that to the lessons of my Confederate ancestors (The war was for slavery, it was always about slavery), and, more directly, the day I spent in the St. Louis city jail after being beaten and falsely arrested while covering a protest staged, ironically enough, to draw attention to racial inequity and police violence. A crude analogy would be to compare it to buying a car: You never noticed it before, but now you never miss when that same model car comes driving past you. After the events of September 2017, I now recognize racism beyond the handful of overt forms I was raised to comprehend as a white person in a white society. It leaves me in a permanent state of frustration with my white colleagues around the country, and with some of my friends and relatives.
Case in point: A video from Washington D.C. over the weekend of white Catholic students harassing a group of Native American demonstrators. The video that has made the rounds makes it clear that what happened was a racist act by privileged white teenagers. You would have to un-see this video and then believe the convenient alternate narrative offered by the well-paid individuals hired by the family of the most prominent student in the video (pictured at top) that in fact it was the students being harangued and showing poise in the face of their own unfair treatment. This alternate narrative, which droves of white journalists came out to adopt and to apologize for their previous outrage, is utter horse shit.
In a far less cynical but still incorrect interpretation of MLK’s words and the current state of racism in America, Boston Globe opinion writer Jeff Jacoby wrote a well-intentioned piece on how whites’ racist views toward blacks have changed over time according to scientific surveys. Jacoby says this shows that racism “has been largely overcome,” which is the most misleading conclusion you could draw from a few cherry-picked statistics. There are more interracial marriages; fewer whites saying they would move if blacks moved into their neighborhoods; more whites say they have nonwhite friends. Racism = Largely Overcome!
I don’t think Jacoby’s intention was to mislead his readers, but he wants you to come away from the piece with a more optimistic, pacified view of race in 21st Century America. He doesn’t concern himself with any other statistics, which is just lazy. The criminal justice system is the most obvious and brutal example of systemic racism’s strong hold on our society. Given the realities of our climate, and our history, it’s a false conclusion and one that could make you disinterested in the ongoing struggle for equality. There are terrible omens that the struggle for equity in the United States is backsliding and will worsen under a Trump presidency and the reintroduction of white supremacy and white nationalism as mainstream concepts. Michael Harriot at The Root did a brutally honest dissection of Jacoby’s poor analysis:
We will close in the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Thank you.