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Sunday, January 17, 2010

It's MLK day - what is the measure?

Like many people, I have been paying attention to the Haiti earthquake aftermath. What a luxury that I get to sit here and type my thoughts on a computer and you get to read them. I have a bottle of water here, a comfortable chair, and time on my hands. The world in many places is cruel and difficult. It's hard for those of us in industrialized nations to see that. In some cases, it is just hard for people in middle and upper class surroundings to see that. Life is not great on the streets of Camden either, or Chicago, or D.C. or Kansas City. People die violent deaths, people go hungry, people are cold, and people live in their cars. Haves and have-nots - whether it is at the scale of country or at the scale of person - are an economic conundrum of a market-based society.

Prejudice and bigotry is, at its heart, a have/have-not dichotomy that is fueled by market forces. When people compete, we need a measure by which to assign value. If some people can be permanently marked down because of the color of the skin, there is a floor to which some people will never sink. This is why arguing against prejudice and bigotry is flawed. As long as one group can always have an "edge" on another group, it is in their self-interest to perpetuate those differences. Dr. King talked about the content of character and not the color of skin. Unfortunately, the content of character is not a recognizable commodity in the pursuit of economic advantage (unless you have a fixed, caste system as India once had). Color of skin, however, is measurable and indelible. Of course there are are exceptions - Sammy Sosa used a skin lightening product and has dramatically changed his color. Why he did this is for him to explain to his shrink, but he did not have to do it for economic gain.

Yet, Sammy may be perpetuating social myths. In many ethnic and race-based cultures there are social pecking orders that are based on skin color. The lighter the shade, the "higher" the status. This pecking order has had an effect on who gets what job or career, social standing in the community, who gets to marry whom, etc. So, perhaps the content of character does have a "look" that is measurable. I don't buy it, but then I am not part of this conversation.

President Obama, our first African-American president (a parent who is African and a parent who is American) has made MLK day a national day of service. People all over the country will be out and about tomorrow at parades, church services, community gatherings, and stopping in at food banks, neighborhood centers, soup kitchens, and wherever else they can lend a hand. We'll text our donations on our cell phones for Haiti relief funds and pause for a moment to count our own blessings. We'll put up with the nonsensical rantings of the pundits like Beck and Limbaugh who will no doubt take the occassion to lambast our President and besmirch the legacy of civil rights.

What do we do on Tuesday?

Work, school, chores, errands, and all the other elements of our daily life will consume our attention. We'll get back into the competition and assume our spots on the ladder, jockeying for position and for some of us, sighing relief that there will always be someone below us. Even as the tragedy of Haiti unfolded, there were haves and have-nots. Rescuers from foreign countries went to the UN building and promptly dug out white victims. Other white Americans were ferried onto planes for transport to reach medical attention outside of Haiti. Meanwhile, Haitains dropped dead in the street from exposure and wounds or died silently under the rubble. White journalists are roaming the streets bringing us the story - if they managed to get there with their equipment, why can't the - well you know the story.

This year, as you observe MLK day, in whatever fashion you do - even if it is just a passing glance as you enjoy a day off from work - think about how you benefit by silently oppressing others. We can't all be equal in our resources, but can we create a playing field where some are not economically penalized at their first breath because of their skin color?

1 comment:

Sara said...

See? I KNEW I could come here and find someone posting, not just about MLK, but also the disaster in Haiti and NOT SOUNDING like an ignorant bigot. That's why I love you, Robyne. :)