Today we remember Martin Luther King Jr., last century’s premier exemplar of morality in public life. There will be ceremonies, speeches, television specials, editorials – and there will be very serious protests and demonstrations: Millions of Americans are outraged by the shooting deaths of young Blacks, by racial economic inequality, by a return to segregation in our education system, by the disproportionate incarceration of Blacks… And millions of White Americans not only have no understanding of what Blacks are experiencing, but themselves feel alienation, dislocation and rage.
We live in a strange time to celebrate the life of the most important civil rights leader of the most important civil rights movement in American history.
We have our first Black president serving his second term in office. We have had Secretaries of State and an Attorney General who are Black. Obviously, we’ve made incredible progress since the lynching, terrorizing and brutalizing of Black people, since separate-but-equal and Jim Crow.
We need disrupters who, despite their outrage, understand MLK’s teaching of ‘moral ends through moral means.’
But there are deep ongoing racial divides that are creating widespread social unrest. Read the following list of facts about American life, slowly. Try reading this as a meditation – an MLK Day practice – and observe your visceral reaction.
- Indicative of the segregation that still exists in our country, three quarters of Whites don’t have any non-White friends.
- Median income for Black households is less than 60% of that of White ones.
- Black households in the U.S. have accumulated less than one-tenth of the wealth of White households.
- Home ownership is far less for Black Americans than White.
- The unemployment rate for Blacks is twice the rate of Whites.
- One in four Blacks live in poverty while fewer than one in ten Whites do.
- Over the past 25 years, the wealth gap between Blacks and Whites has nearly tripled.
- There are only six Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
- There is one Black person on the Forbes 400 richest Americans list.
- Five times as many Whites use drugs as Blacks, yet Blacks are sent to prison for drug offenses at ten times the rate.
- Blacks are incarcerated in general at six times the rate of Whites.
- Ten percent of Americans believe small business owners should be free to not serve or do business with Blacks, on religious grounds.
- There are huge (almost two to one) disparities and divisions between Blacks and Whites in views about the fairness of policing, the judicial system, economic opportunity, and government- fundamental systems of America.
- And in 2015, not one Black person was nominated for an Oscar in any acting category.
Some White people may read this list and feel resentful that we are being blamed though we aren’t racists. Some of us read this list and feel that Black people need to take more personal responsibility – or feel that White people have grievances, too. And some of us read this list and say: Yea, there are so many racists in this country.
No matter who we are, the fact that millions of American citizens are devastated and traumatized means we’re all implicated in this drama. It is precisely our certainties (whether conservative resentment, or liberal righteousness) that are the enemy of compassion and imagination – the two qualities we desperately need, if we are to finally solve the problem of race in America.
While racism is culturally unacceptable, it is unconsciously still very much part of the structures of our institutional and personal lives. But surfacing what is unconscious isn’t easy. It requires introspection – less a moral question of blame than psychological distortions to be corrected. Anger channeled into wisdom, resentment into responsibility, resistance into compassion, guilt into action, rage into insight, and blame into empathy. It requires disrupters who despite their outrage understand MLK’s teaching of “moral ends through moral means” and who, despite their fear, educate themselves in the realities of the disrupter’s claims.
MLK day is a sacred day in America and sacred days are designed to invite reflection about who we are, what we most value, and who we want to be…days designated to measure ourselves against our own finest selves and noblest dreams. This was MLK’s method, challenge and dream: to build a future in which our grandchildren think of early 21st-century American racism as unimaginable as we find 19th-century slavery. May these words from MLK’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech inspire us all:
“We despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords…into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope, and this is the faith.”
Image credit: 360b/Shutterstock.com
Irwin Kula is the co-founder and co-executive editor of The Wisdom Daily. A rabbi, Irwin’s writing has been featured in The Huffington Post and the Washington Post. He is the author of Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life and a co-editor of The Book of Jewish Sacred Practices. Irwin has appeared on NBC’s The Today Show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The O’Reilly Factor and PBS Frontline. Irwin also serves as President Emeritus of Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank and resource center in New York City.