MLK, now and then

Public school raised me in the veneration of Martin Luther King, but I’m now either too politically informed or cynically corrupted to miss that public veneration is always a melange of promoting the saint and promoting the parts of his message that advance our own ends, regardless of what we leave off or even distort.

Two crucial elements of MLK’s appeal were his defense of a colorblind society and his framing of liberation in Americano-Christian structures. These were foregrounded in his “I Have a Dream” speech, which we watched repeatedly, displayed on walls, and could invoke for sacred effect.

Both elements died. Colorblindness was replaced with diversity and the Enlightenment-Constitutionalism was dropped for a structuralist false consciousness theory (e.g. “oppression” or “privilege”). This creates difficulties in understanding what sort of continuity we can claim with MLK. For us, skin color is a principle for judging personal worth, even if the judgment is a ready-made “celebrate!” Diversity ends segregation in one important sense (no separate drinking fountains) but it preserves the fundamental apartness of races, even if they are now all in the same room together.  The structuralism makes any evaluation of success or historical continuity difficult: we know what ending segregated drinking fountains or lunch counters would look like, but ending privilege?   We are pretty good at figuring out what is unjust in a sign saying “Whites Only”, but it is a good deal harder to make determinations about justice or injustice when the relevant moral information can’t be summarized on a two-word sign, say, in a police shooting.

In fact, the focus on police actions in the last ten years complicates the question of racial justice by locating it in a place where relations are designed in advance to be asymmetrical. Police have sovereign or governmental immunity from tort claims. What would count as negligence or brutality for a man on the street doesn’t count as brutality for a cop, and this isn’t due to some oversight or desire to create oppressor-oppressed structures.

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