Writing on what would be Martin Luther King’s eighty-ninth birthday, I reflect on the eternal quest to advance civil and human rights. I also reflect on the words on the graphic adorning my header page, and wonder what they mean to the average person in today’s society. The full text of his quote is:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
I believe it is important to recognize this day every year because it is at issue for all of us, not just those who remember the past or feel they have a personal, vested interest in the struggle. King’s messages on civil rights, poverty, greed, and compassion still resonate, nearly fifty years after his death. The problem is that while the message is universal, it isn’t being universally supported or promoted.
It’s hard to deny that this country and many like it, stands at a crossroads. The last year in particular has seen a proliferation of overt segmentation, whether based on race, gender, religion, or socio-economic status. The news is filled with stories of people who clearly stand in opposition to these basic rights for all human beings, whether it is traditional bigotry and sexism, or more inadvertent discrimination that rears its ugly head because people are just not very sensitive to who it affects. Both need to be addressed, at all levels, and we must begin to look at the world through others’ eyes.
The Problem Today
When racism or sexism make their way into the mainstream, talking about them often devolves into a conversation about whether something is politically correct or not. This isn’t a discussion about political correctness, but rather the basic human decency that I believe most of us remain capable of. It is far too easy to remain ambivalent, or ignorant of the struggles of others, when it doesn’t affect you as an individual. The anonymity of social media, the questionable integrity of multiple “news” sources, and our general isolation from the problems we all face make it difficult to relate. That doesn’t make us non-complicit, but it certainly can make good people unaware.
It doesn’t help that racism, and sexism, have become systemic. It is impossible for only the most blind of us to recognize that at the very highest levels of our governmental and social institutions, creating artificial hierarchies of worth and contribution based on race or gender is becoming the norm. No one, or few people, ever admit they are racist. No one ever admits that they are sexist. But the actions we take in our lives or our jobs speak louder than those denials, and it is about time we start calling people out on it. We’ve got to start holding people accountable for more than their words, and demand actions that recognize the value of diversity, instead of assuming that people are just being hypersensitive to the conditions around them.
Everyone Has Value
From my earliest years, I learned not to identify or qualify who you are based on external characteristics, but rather on the merits of your contributions. I don’t care about race, gender, religion or creed. Plenty of examples exist of people from all walks of life who bring value to others’ lives and those who do not. I would prefer to be judged on what I do, not the color of my skin, and I would be surprised to find anyone who would feel different in their own lives. See the fact is, most everyone has been exposed to pre-judgment, either themselves or someone they care about. When it happens to you, you care. I am asking, as Dr. King did, that we all start caring when it happens to others, because it isn’t an American value, and it isn’t a human value.
What We Must Do
Everyone needs to recognize that they have a role in this. This isn’t political, economic, or social. It’s moral, and it is hard to claim the moral high ground when you turn a blind eye to the struggle of others. Coretta Scott King, the late widow of Dr. King whose birthday we celebrate today, once said:
Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.
I believe in this generation. The Millennials and “Generation Z” don’t seem to look at things the way X-ers, Boomers, and older folks do, and that gives me hope. By overwhelming margins, they accept people of different races, increasingly don’t care about gender when it comes to merit, and put religion into perspective that makes it a potential enabler rather than a divider. Politics matters less than policy, and promoting the general welfare – as called for in the Constitution – seems to engender a call to service of others that we should all aspire to. That should inspire hope.
But I, like Dr. King, haven’t given up on my own generation, or the ones that came before me. I believe, genuinely, in the spirit of Man and the idea that most of us operate with a higher purpose in our hearts. We may not always extend that outside of our own social circles, but I think most of us believe the world can be a little less vitriolic and a little more compassionate to the sufferings of others. What I ask, from each of you, on this day and every day moving forward, is that we live up to that faith. I ask that we don’t simply say, “I am not a racist,” but instead make racism – and sexism and any kind of discrimination – unfashionable again. It is the legacy of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, but it didn’t begin there. It doesn’t have to end with him either.