Martin Luther King Jr. and Original Sin
I was born on the wrong side of the color line, and, to my shame, I would have it no other way. Not a day goes by in which I do not enjoy the benefit of my skin. We white men had a monopoly on privilege for a long, long time. Our right to call the shots was unquestioned. Today that unquestioned right is imperilled, but still present. I get the benefit of membership in the most exclusive of clubs, the club that says I belong at the top of the heap. America may not have the legal infrastructure of a plantation any longer, and that matters. But in the great game of life, we white tokens sprint from the blocks full stride. People of color must first loosen a shackle.
Where I grew up in Detroit, white men sat on porches during the riots in 1967 armed with shotguns praying that "niggers," "porch monkeys," and "jaigaboos," came looting their way down our street. When King was assassinated a year later I braced myself for the end. It struck me that the city ought to be burned to the ground, the slate wiped clean and a new world built from the ashes. King was killed because he was black, charismatic and brave. He spoke the truth. If the truth cannot be spoken to power then destroy power and all it rests upon.
Race-based hatred was everywhere. There was white flight in the city before Coleman Young was elected mayor in 1974. If you had money you fled town. Those of us whose parents lacked the means to escape the city remained. I was terrified. I ran from Detroit just before Christmas of my senior year in high school never to return. Somehow, the city let me graduate anyhow, and I headed off to college. I was interested in the law but did not go to law school out of college. Some part of me assumed we were doomed. When I read Malcolm X for the first time I saw clearly how my skin was a prison. In New York, friends and I would sit on the Upper West Side on those hot, hot summer nights wondering why the city was not in flames. Harlem was self-destructing when it should be destroying those who held it down.
King dreamed of a day in which all men would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. We are closer to living that dream today than we were when he was killed. But we are still a house divided. I think of all the young black men I have seen go to prison in the pointless war on drugs, some spending long decades locked in pens because they sold narcotics to others. Why aren’t the alcohol and tobacco merchants locked up along with these men? I know the answer: We criminalize conduct "others" engage in. When I self-medicate with a gin, or you do so with a cigarette, we do so with the right to choose how to destroy ourselves. Prohibition ended not because alcohol suddenly became good for us. It ended because it was the white man’s crack cocaine.
Race and class are closely joined. The focus on income inequality today reignites discussion of equal opportunity for all in ways that resonate with King’s message. But still the undying scar, the shadow cast by race, colors the world. Birthers challenge President Obama’s right to occupy the White House three years after the election. Is it because he has failed to release his long-form birth certificate, or is it because of some darker reason? A substantial part of the nation is, I suspect, unprepared to accept a black man as president. There are still old white men sitting on their porches with shotguns hoping for a clean shot at a darkie.
I have good friends on the other side of the color line. We talk freely about the worlds we see. But I am always a privileged tourist. Nathan McCall once cautioned the world against well meaning white men: We take up the cause of racial justice in much the same way we do a hobby like hang-gliding. We are all passionate engagement when the mood strikes us. But when the mood passes, we’re on to the next thing. He nailed me with that remark. He nailed me to a cross from which I am unfree to extricate myself.
In my heart I find Malcolm X a far more compelling figure than Martin Luther King. King’s call for justice was polite, poetic and graceful. He appealed to the better angels of our nature. And he was right to do so. But a lifetime after his death the color line still separates and divides. Malcolm’s edgy rejection of the pyramid resting on the souls of black folk satisfies in ways King’s lofty rhetoric does not.
Some part of me remains the kid I was in Detroit, terrified about the fire next time; the fire that never came. The fire that still seems overdue. The cancer of racial hatred remains virulent. We have not found the cure. We may never. Living as I do on the wrong side of the color line, I remain grateful for the accident of birth that yields a sense of bad faith.
It is for this reason and this reason alone that I call myself half a Christian. I believe in original sin, and the perpetual picking at the scabs of an uneasy conscience. I’ve just never found any real hope of redemption, even on the day we honor Martin Luther King, Jr.