Monday, January 16, 2006

The Legacy of King--On Hold

I meant to release this Monday, but the topic I was dealing with was so huge, that it mattered more to get it right than to release it on Monday.

Today we mark the birth date of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, a great civil rights leader who fought the racial injustice that plagued the United States from its founding until the late 1960s. Dr. King, by his life and death, made our country a much, much better place in very substantial ways.

The ending of segregation as the prevailing law, and the instilling of the unfortunately novel idea that people are pretty much all the same, even if some come from Africa and others from Europe was a wake up call for a nation that has sought freedom. America is by no means perfect, and slavery and segregation are two of the best examples that America remains a work in progress. A good work to be certain, but one that, like anything else needs its moral clock reset in big and small ways from time to time. The Civil War taught us that there was an unbelievable cost to mistreating one's own brothers. And so did King's revolution a century later, teaching lessons that should have been second nature.

And while we celebrate the work of King for which he gave his life, we also need to look at the very positive work he did, which appears to have stopped with his death in 1968.

King's movement was not one of static objectives, but one of incremental advancement; encouraging change in law, hearts and minds, and thereby a change in the entire way our nation and the world viewed racial differences. In other words, the movement relied on the assumption that blacks would retain the same energy they had in the 1960s to become equal participants in society, law and the economy on the same terms as everyone else. But the problems start from the top down.

King would likely not recognize the successor to his civil rights movement that exists today and certainly would not accept it as the fulfillment of his vision. Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, Charles Ogletree, Cornell West, Julian Bond, Kweisi Mfume, Louis Farakahn, and the Congressional Black Caucus have taken over. Leadership by example became replaced by self-appointed "black leaders" who leave no moral example to follow. Moral authority and nonviolence have been replaced by unintellectual demagoguery and belligerence, whereby the term "racist" has become a tired trope that has come to be understood to mean anyone/thing who will not give these opportunists whatever they want or who disagrees with them in the slightest. They have become the enablers of violent crime, forgiving the crime (if the criminal is black) and blaming society, or even the victim for the perpetrator's actions, casting it as the perp's understandable reaction to racial (meaning economic) injustice.

And further divorcing themselves from Dr. King, today's "black leaders," rather than discouraging violence, have instead concocted from their intellectual cesspool, the uniquely immoral distinction of "black on black" violence. I really do not know which angle from which I should first attack this misbegotten idea, but I'll give this a shot: Is there anything wrong with advocating the stopping of all violence...or are we just concerned about "black on black" violence? The use of such an exclusive term in such a serious moral argument implies that the races of the persons involved in violent crime affects the significance of the crime. So if the perp is white and the victim is white, is that more, less or of similar seriousness? How about if the victim is black and the perp white or vice versa? I somehow think that those who coined this irresponsible line of thought will deny what I argue, but the very act of inventing it signifies racist thought. Worse yet, it implies that "black on black" violence has anything to do with race.

Because the very idea of "black on black" violence presumes that the violence itself is the problem, rather than the cause that spawns it. Certainly we can use the easy excuse of economic disparity to explain the high rate of crime in urban society, but class warfare has done nothing to ameliorate any of the problems of blacks in the inner city. And it also ignores history.

New York City was the place of origin for both sides of my family: poor people of disfavored ethnicities who were treated like junk simply because of their alienage. But they were hard working people who knew that work is a good thing and that good hard work is eventually rewarded, regardless of your parentage or epidermis. No violence, just employment. As a corollary, I will concede that economics plays a role in certain crimes, but I will not concede a link to poverty. I will however, permit a link to greed, which knows no class boundaries. Enron, Arthur Andersen, Martha Stewart, the current Abramoff scandal, and just about any other white collar crime story involve people who don't need the money. And I would wager that white collar criminals have spirited off more money and assets in the 20th century than in all blue collar criminal acts combined throughout the history of humanity.

So excluding economics as a factor, we are left with people who have moral and structural impediments and disincentives to success. First, Dr. King never imagined that the people for whom he was advocating would settle for a life of dependence on the state. And I would submit that the greatest economic disservice that has ever been done to blacks was to tell them that they would to better to live off of a stipend from the state than by a job that pays them for work done. King would likely have railed against an attitude of economic defeatism where people are relegated to a proletarian status by government officials whom they continue to elect to office who continue to advocate policies of depression and dependence. But one does not get far in employment, equal-opportunity or not, without an education. And it seems, again, that the people in the cities are, out of habit, uncritically electing individuals who subordinate their interests to those wealthy of campaign contributors.

The teachers unions have done more damage to inner city black youth than just about any other group. And the debate over school vouchers and educational standards ought to be a very sobering benchmark as to how callous we have become, when teachers' tenure and seniority take precedence over a child's right to learn to read and have a meaningful education that prepares him for college and the real world. But schools that fail students by failing to educate them are a fact of life in the inner cities, and the fact that same is accepted as a norm is criminal. And the fact that the teachers' unions can argue their members' interests over those of the next generation is grotesque, proving that these people are devoid of any concern for humankind.

And let us not forget what passes for "the arts." Video games like Grand Theft Auto which glorify and reward acts of violence, and "music" which involves people yelling rather than singing, uttering curses and street slang advocating violence, drug use, sex and misogyny. And the fact that the people who make this trash make millions influencing the minds of these youths reflects yet another departure from the ways of King--violence as recreation. Shovelling this worthless and senseless filth on young people for profit is no different than dealing drugs to them.

And while we are on the subject of violence and drugs, gang life is another metasasis of the culture of immorality that festers in an inner city. Illegitimacy and the absence of parents intimately involved with and participating in their children's upbringing has in no small way given rise to the prevalence of gangs. Young people who want a sense of belonging look to gangs when they can't get it from family. And from gangs come other things that are very seductive to adolescent minds. Access to financial resources through the drug trade, and power, through the enforcement of drug territories by the use of firearms in an urban war for economic access. But it is the very rush which they sought that is destroying them either by getting them thrown in jail, or by the more direct means of being killed in violence.

And all of this is largely viewed as a fact of life. Which tells me that King's legacy may be on hold, as the self-appointed standard bearers of civil rights seem to be doing nothing about it--other than blaming the people who are trying to do something about it.

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