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Shattering complacency on MLK day

Camille Nelson asks the right question, but is there a right answer?

| Forum Editor
At the “Shattering Ceilings: Celebrating Success in Pursuit of the Dream” ceremony in Graham Chapel this Monday, held to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at Washington University, I felt a sense of alienation and of absurdity for the first half of the precedings.

The cover of the event’s program sported a photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. orating just above a startlingly similar picture of Barack Obama. Robin Smith, an Emmy Award-winning journalist from St. Louis, spoke in a nasally, newscaster voice shamelessly devoid of sincerity. The Black Anthology presented the faux journals of three youths at moments throughout the civil rights struggle of the last 50 or so years, the last of which was a young adult inspired and in many ways liberated by the election of a black man to be president of the United States.

Each moment of the ceremony was indeed “Celebrating Success,” hinting at the United States’ arrival at a better world, perhaps a raceless world. We watched West African dance company Afriky Lolo with a sense of integration, a sense of immersion in diversity, a sense of personal acceptance. We felt good about ourselves.

But I looked around in the midst of this exhibitionist exoticism and saw (though the dancing at the front was quite beautiful) the people sitting around me, and I felt an almost tangible tenuousness in the “integration” of the chapel. Sure, black people and white people sat next to each other. Sure, we were all there to celebrate the civil rights movement’s intimations toward an equal nation. But some of us were still white, and some of us were still black. And you could feel the difference.

Then Camille Nelson, professor of law at St. Louis University, came to the stage. The sound bites to which we reduce Martin Luther King, Jr.’s many words betray the radicalism of his message, she said. The acknowledgment only of his most agreeable “Injustice anywhere…” sentiments, and only of the most palatable pieces of “I have a dream,” allows us (the avowedly liberal Washington University crowd) complacency, she said. It is wrong, the belief that we have achieved a raceless society because our president now is black, she said.

And she was right. The blackness of Barack Obama is indeed, as she said, a comfortably distant one. We do cite only the most universally-tolerable opinions of MLK, Jr. Her speech, for lack of a better word, was immensely ballsy—in the face of a mixed crowd, she interrupted the flow of a feel-good, pat-ourselves-on-the-back-for-not-being-overtly-racist fest with a forceful, irrefutable challenge to our basic modes of thought on race.

But the message of her talk was one step short. I support her thesis. We need systemic change, economically as well as socially, and until that happens we will not be where MLK, Jr. really, actually wanted us to be. But her advice on how to change—on who, in fact, is to blame and who, in fact, needs to change—was meager. And I think this was not due to lack of time or to lack of relevance, but to a lack of referent in the common rhetoric when the whole topic comes up.

Shortly, institutionalized racism (what I think Nelson was decrying) implies a product that is more than the sum of its parts. “Institutional” means that without any individual particularly consenting to it, or consciously contributing to it, the “system” in general discriminates against people of certain races. People will argue against this, but just as all white people will be accused of being at least subconsciously racist (which they generally are), black people can be accused of relinquishing agency in favor of the mindset of a victim having been screwed from the beginning (which they also often are) but which is another kind of internalized racism that halts progress from the inside rather than the out.

The only body to call upon, then, is the government—not because it was ever responsible for institutionalized racism in the first place, but because they are the only ones who can really significantly change institutions. The problem, then, is this: We have to this point (for the last eight years) been able to place the blame on a conservative, white president who “doesn’t care about black people.” But now, Barack Obama will come to office, we will all feel good about the racial equity of our nation, and institutionalized racial inequality will continue to be the case because really, no matter who is in office, the kind of broad systemic change that would have to occur to eliminate it is not going to happen.

I throw my chips in with what Camille Nelson did have to say. But I see in the absence of a detailed and coherent prescription something that scares me more than our ignorance of MLK, Jr.’s essential message: an absence of any blameable cause for pervasive, institutionalized national racism and a corresponding inability to do anything about it.

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