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Friday, April 4, 2008

M.L.K. Jr.: His Dream, Our Dream

From Fountain Park, on the North Side.

Presidential hopeful Barack Obama's words in his March 18, 2008 speech on race forced the nation to confront its racial rhetoric and paradigms as latent holdovers from a discriminatory and hateful past. Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death, on this day in 1968, we must absorb the shame-inducing honesty of the Senator's words:

... As William Faulkner once wrote, "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past." We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven't fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today's black and white students.

Legalized discrimination - where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments - meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today's urban and rural communities.

A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one's family, contributed to the erosion of black families - a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods - parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement - all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us...

The urban underbelly that so many American citizens are able to shield from their consciousness as "beneficiaries" of exclusionary zoning, superior schools, networks of power, private automobiles, social and physical mobility, trust funds, the "right" way to speak English, a biased legal system, the correct ZIP code, or even just an Anglo name--this is the hour to immerse yourself in the tear-stained truth of the matters of race and poverty in the country. May you never again call any neighborhood with worse-for-the-wear buildings and African-American residents a "ghetto"--thinking somehow that you're superior. Or worse, maybe you think you're lucky to have escaped such conditions. Then why is crumbling infrastructure, contaminated soil, and social isolation okay for those stuck in these ghettos? Abandon all pretense.

Attend church in a neighborhood you were told you'd be shot if you entered it. See what happens.

Walk down St. Louis Avenue from Crown Candy to City Limits, or anywhere in between. See how you feel.

Pull your car over when the police lights flash. When they tell you you shouldn't be up here, do NOT head south.

Stop at a Chop Suey place along Kingshighway, or Natural Bridge, or MLK Jr. Blvd. Or dine in at a fast food restaurant on one of the main drags. Would you eat this every day?

Or simply watch. Watch Fairground Park crumble. Watch McKee own more of St. Louis Place. Watch the Mullanphy Emigrant House struggle to stabilize a piece of history. Watch St. Louis's historic African American community, the Ville, slowly erase its shotgun homes from the cultural landscape. Watch children pack into and pour out of some of the worst schools this nation can present to you. Observe our unique brand of poverty and decay, some of the most notable desolation in the U.S.

But until you do, do not be self-righteous. Do not think you're better. Do not think you're lucky. Do not think it's out of your control. Because the soul of this nation carries these unsightly scars. Do not cake your wound, our wounds in foundation.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had the dream. You, we, I, in his absence, have to act.


Doug Duckworth said...

Most White Americans don't seem to accept that their success came at the expense of African Americans. When an entire people is exploited, the oppressor benefits. The legacy of that oppression is evident today, from slavery, de jure restrictive covenants, to de facto segregation through exclusionary zoning and spatial mismatch. Blaming the victim is a callous.

It is, ironically, a denial of personal responsibility for the collective error, whether through ignorance or racism, made by Whites.

We should convict the soccer mom living in suburbia, with her separate school district and homogeneous exclusionary neighborhood, before we jail the 18 year old African American drug dealer in O'Fallon Park. The former has the ability to cure the ills of poverty by lobbying government. Yet she prefers her situation whether through the bliss of denial, apathy, or conspiracy.

The latter is a product of policies which took away his job and put the gun and drugs in his hand.

Matt M. said...

Excellent summation. I love that you point out the irony of middle class America's personal responsibility ethic being turned on them.

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