Today we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., the great leader of the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement. And living in the decade that marks the 50th anniversary of the tumultuous 1960s, fresh traumatic events, from Ferguson to New York City to Cleveland to Los Angeles, mandate serious reflection on both eras.
For despite the progress in civil rights that has been achieved, race remains the foremost social, economic, and political issue that divides America and threatens to tear holes in the fabric of our society.
In a timely OP-ED in the New York Times last August 27th, Nicholas Kristof raised the portentous question: Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist? And the honest answer is: YES! For “research in the last couple of decades suggests that the problem is not so much overt racists. Rather, the larger problem is a broad swath of people who consider themselves enlightened, who intellectually believe in equality, who deplore discrimination, yet who also harbor unconscious attitudes that result in discriminatory policies and behavior.”
Wow, I thought, could that be me? Could I, who participated in the Civil Rights Movement as a Public Defender, and who recently authored Gideon’s Children, a novel arguing for fair treatment and justice for individuals of all colors in the Criminal Justice System, harbor such an unconscious attitude?
After much soul searching, I concluded that the answer was sadly: YES! And I think that if most of my fellow Americans are scrupulously honest with themselves, they will come to the same unhappy conclusion.
How can that be? How can such a subconscious condition originate? were the next questions I asked myself. And while I am not a psychologist, sociologist, or philosopher, after due deliberation Human Nature is the answer that tumbled into mind, a quick review of history then confirming it. For throughout the long story of mankind, someone or some group has always needed to rise above another, to be on top and hence better. And while this need to set ourselves apart from our fellow beings, to make ourselves feel special and better can, of course, produce constructive achievement if guided and guarded by conscience, if the rising is accomplished by pushing and keeping others down, while shelving conscience’s dictate to act appropriately, then a tension is created that leads to trouble with a capital T.
Most of us lead ordinary lives, and are not directly involved in the higher levels of the power structure that governs our society. However, that human need to be special, to be better, is still present and can unconsciously form attitudes that lead to harmful discriminatory policies and behavior.
So, to truly honor the great man whose birthday we celebrate today, I would like to suggest that amidst our environment of busy-busy-busy, fast- faster-and-faster-yet, leading to information overload and shrinking attention spans, that we stop for an hour or two, and honestly consider how we think and feel about how we relate to our fellow beings.
Then, let us resolve to do better. As Lincoln advised, let us summon the better angels of our nature, and taking one tiny step forward each day, be the change in the world we want to see.
Happy Birthday, Martin! And God bless!