Human Rights

If MLK Were Around, He Wouldn't Care About Racial Brushfires in the Media -- He'd Be Talking About Poverty

It’s the personal and dramatic aspects of race that obsess us, not the deeply rooted and currently active, political inequalities.

What a tangle of racial controversies to embroil politicians, the media, and the public in recent days: Glenn Beck insisted that African-American is a "bogus, PC-term," the Census bureau insisted on keeping "Negro" among its list of racial categories, and Senator Harry Reid confessed to saying the President's appeal derives from his (relatively) fair skin and Negro-free dialect.

Forgive, for a moment, some biographical speculation: Had he lived, Martin Luther King, Jr. would not likely be bothered by these racial brushfires. Instead, he would be appalled by the larger afflictions engulfing this nation, all of which threaten the realization of his dream - not the therapeutic, saccharine dream peddled to us in candle-lit commemorations, but the urgent dream anchored by his gritty work.

The just-released jobs report shows 85,000 more jobs lost in December, with startling unemployment across the board: Teenagers (27 percent), Blacks (16.2 percent), Hispanics (12.9 percent), Whites (9 percent), and the general population at 10 percent and rising.

Socio-economic progress in the United States is no better today then during the latter years of Dr. King's life. America faces the same poverty rate today (13.2 percent) that Dr. King denounced in 1968 (12.8 percent). Meanwhile, the number of people living in poverty in that time span has grown from 25 million to a whopping 40 million, including 12 million children.

As the House and Senate dither over healthcare reform, and tens of millions of Americans hover on the brink of poverty, Martin Luther King's Dream remains more pressing and relevant than at any point since his assassination.

Rather than thoughtfully discussing our political problems, including race, Americans love to reduce the conversation to feelings and etiquette. It's the personal and dramatic aspects of race that obsess us, not the deeply rooted and currently active, political inequalities. That's our predicament: Racial debate, in public and private, is trapped in the sinkhole of therapeutics.

On the airwaves, in the legislatures, around the kitchen tables, and at the water cooler, we would serve our country better with a conversation about class and racial inequalities than with chitchat about how any given person "feels."

We live in a nation that worships Latino baseball players, black presidential candidates, and Asian classical musicians, even as it diminishes, or neglects, the average non-white citizen -- overwhelmed moms, factory workers, prisoners. So, instead of asking Does Topher like Asian women? Will LaShonda marry her Latino beau? Why does Glenn have no black friends? why not ask how we can expand middle-class stability -- earnings, savings, homeownership -- to the hordes of Americans, among all races, who are one pink slip, one lapsed mortgage payment, one cancer diagnosis, one car wreck away from destitution?

Modern-day King would not be bothered by Harry Reid -- almost King's historical contemporary -- and his anachronistic gaffe. Modern-day King would be perturbed, however, by the Senate Majority Leader's inability, so far, to marshal the requisite Senate support for a public option in healthcare reform. And the intransigence of both war and economic depravation would pique the slain leader.

"Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane," King declared in 1966. Two years later, the year he was assassinated, King launched his Poor People's Campaign, "a multiracial army of the poor," that marched on Washington to demand an Economic Bill of Rights from Congress.

"True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar," Dr. King maintained. "It is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring." Recounting the Biblical parable of the beggar on the Road to Jericho, King called for sweeping changes to the conditions that cause economic suffering. What does fixing the Road to Jericho mean today?

Forget about Negros, Avatar's alleged racial insensitivity, and Glenn Beck's melanin-deficient friends. To help realize King's dream, let's start by ensuring meaningful healthcare and financial industry reform, not the mostly haphazard, cosmetic measures flung about so far.

Dr. King did not view poverty as a natural or inevitable condition of humankind. Instead, he believed it was the result of unjust economic policies and a lack of government investments that help people realize their potential. King's actual legacy teaches Americans and political leaders a great deal about implementing an equitable, purposeful, and long-term economic recovery.

Rich Benjamin is a senior Fellow at Demos and author of "Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America."
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