Notes on MLK Jr

Martin Luther King would be 85 this year.
 
I wonder what he would notice about race in today’s world.  Certainly our president; perhaps that there are more public displays of diversity.  Casual racism, at least, is gauche and impolite.   There’s little disapproval for having friends of different ethnicities.  Certainly there’s a generational shift, and as those who grew up comfortable in a more racially divided environment die, I trust younger generations will find racism to be confused, unnecessary, wrong. 
 
I imagine he would still notice that the country still struggles with many disparities between whites and blacks.   Our country remains, for the most part, segregated.  Black men get incarcerated for non-violent crimes at a disproportional rate.  Many African-Americans struggle to build the generational capital that others take for granted.  And 2008 had a huge impact on black wealth throughout the country.  I suspect he would be outraged at the way some states are restricting voting rights.  Although there has been some improvement in the material conditions of many people, but others are still poor and the way out of poverty seems obscure. 
 
Race has had a very specific impact in the US.  It is certainly not the only country that has difficulties with rival ethnic groups (remember the Danes and the Saxons?  Just don’t get me started on the Picts).   But our political choices and conversations have usually begun and ended on our inability to come to terms with the consequences of our specific racial divide.  Defining who we are as a country is necessarily woven in with the narrative of racial injustice and the institutions that have protected white control of the political and economic process.   And we forget how recently most blacks lived in a country where they were repeatedly terrorized.
 
So what is to be done?  In the church, we have a role to build networks, tell stories and listen.  We remember that we were once enslaved by racism, but that there is a better world.  We will still build golden calves long the way:  we will wonder if the previous world was worth leaving.  But we have faith that building communities based on love and freedom is worth the struggle.   It means that sometimes the privileged learn to share; and the oppressed risk to speak; that our stories and desires are probably more tightly linked than we understand.  But it’s tough, for often the smallest differences that cause the greatest anxieties. 
 
How would we eliminate racism and injustice?  It’s hard to change hearts, but we could diminish the impact of racism in our country that are not based on race.  Such policies are expensive and currently politically unviable: full employment at a living wage, universally affordable health care, and excellent education would benefit everyone, and could certainly be paid for if we simply substituted our three wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and drugs with such investments.  This would not end the discomfort between the different, but it might mitigate the consequences when the rules are rigged.
 
So we celebrate Martin Luther King Day.  Let us remember this prophet, who died unpopular, who challenged us to stand and sing until our land rings with liberty, so that we may discover the promise of our God and of our native land. 

Race, Miley, etc

Today is the fifty year anniversary of MLK’s I Have a Dream Speech.  When I was a child, my dentist had a big poster of that speech on his wall, the words floating as a silk-screen print.  As I would get my teeth cleaned, I’d reread the selection over and over if only to distract myself from the invasiveness of the procedure.

And here we are.  I’m not sure how I would assess our culture’s current level of racism.  Certainly we have a lot to do in our institutional life:  we’ve decided that jail is how we will house people of color, especially black men.   The drug war has become the way live “institutional racism.”

It is true that people are less likely to have conscious views about racial inferiority, and the instinctive discomfort of difference has changed.   But plainly, we see our racism in our economic choices as a nation:  instead of investing in schools or jobs we buy prisons and soldiers.   Mass incarceration creates and ensures a class of people, mainly black men, will always struggle to have wider choices in their lives.  The drug war is the vehicle. I’m not interested in changing hearts.  That’s for the Lord.  But we can, as citizens, change our institutional priorities.  To be an anti-racist means opposing the war on drugs and struggling with the institutions that economically benefit from the prison industrial complex.

And Miley.  I admit, I am old enough I have no experience with her previous incarnations.  The song?  Meh.  But it wasn’t the spectacle of transgressive sexuality that was bothersome (how I miss subtlety and innuendo), but the strange way she harnessed race in her act.

I was startled – I find large cute stuffed animals disconcerting, the way others experience clowns or mimes.  I had questions:  is this a commentary on fetishes?  What does the protruding tongue mean?  Hunger?  Sensuality?  Or is it simply a weird face?  Is Miley wearing a costume or a bikini?  It looks hot.  Not sexy hot, just uncomfortable.  Yes, she should take it off.  Why was she wearing it in the first place?

Can someone sit her down and feed her a big plate of Fettucini Alfredo?

Is this a minstrel show I’m watching now?

She is singing some words and she says she can’t stop.

Am I supposed to be aroused?  Who is Robert Thicke?  Is that a lap dance?  Why is he wearing a suit?   God, that song is so overrated.

Miley Cyrus can’t stop.  But I could.  So I did.