MLK Day: Racism and Memory

From a Google Image Search – WSFA.com

There are a couple of things I would like to say on this Monday in 2020 as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s day. Since MLK and I lived through the same times he loomed large in the news, and he still looms large in my memories of those days. So first I will tell you a little story and then I will tell you something I read in the newspaper today that would, if he were still alive, inspire MLK to fight on, because sadly discrimination is still all too real. 

I was, as a young adult, a hippie. Weird word, hippie, I guess it was supposed to refer to how “hip” we were. I did not wear flowers in my hair, but I went to concerts in the park and danced to the music and I learned. I learned about the military-industrial complex, and about losing our guys in a war that was not our war. I learned that women were tired of being second class citizens and that from now on we wanted to have our needs and rights taken into consideration. And I learned about racism, which I knew of, but had not seen close up and ugly. 

Martin Luther King was a bit older than me. By the time I was 20, he was 34, five years away from his death by assassination. America was in the midst of displaying racial ignorance all over our TVs for the whole world to see. I did not take a bus south. I had my own apartment and had to work. I did march in a demonstration or two. And no matter how much I wanted to I could not take my eyes off my TV when I was home from work. 

Here are well-dressed, peaceful people just walking together in their dignity to ask for their rights as American citizens; not separate rights that were supposed to be separate but equal and weren’t equal at all, but just to be left alone to work, live, eat, and travel as freely as any other American. The difference between what America stands for and how America betrays its ideals was never as clear as when those powerful streams of water pouring from fire hoses hit those brave marchers, knocking them to the ground, ruining their best clothing, putting some in the hospital, and striking fear in my heart because something was happening in America that was incomprehensible.

In the midst of all this show of hate, one of my friends decided that we should spend a Sunday in a local storefront Pentecostal church. She was a braver girl than I was, I secretly felt we would be intruding and might not be welcome. But we were welcomed in that church. We were accepted and then petted and called out as “pretty flowers who wandered into the midst of the congregation.” We were blessed and encouraged to go forward and let the minister lay his blessed hands upon us. It was an enlightening experience, an experience that lives vividly still in my memory. And it was impossible not to contrast our warm welcome with the hate playing out daily on my TV. I mourned the sins of the white people in my nation, a nation I had always been proud of – until living in a diverse neighborhood as a hippie girl, opening up my mind to things that never impacted me growing up in my safe suburb. Perhaps we don’t all have these moments of revelation, but I did.

You would think that watching this racial hate play out would have given vent to all the negative prejudices arising out of nothing except the color of one’s skin and that we would have been left burned clean of hate and embracing our differences. That is not the case as we know. Here, at the beginning of the 21st century we see how deeply we have nourished the roots of our racism. We have watched black men killed for the thinnest of reasons and we have seen that there are Americans who must proclaim that ‘Black Lives Matter’. Why would an athlete who has achieved his dream of sports stardom, feel the need to take a knee when he hears the Star Spangled Banner? If racism were not alive and well there would be no need to face white derision by seemingly disrespecting America, when you are really just asking for what should already belong to you. 

That’s the story I promised, and here is the news. In today’s New York Times is a story about what Ben Carson, as Trump’s head of Housing and Urban Development is doing these days. We have been made aware of redlining and how it was used to keep some neighborhoods white and some neighborhoods black, to keep us separate. But today my own city was mentioned in this national article as a city that has refused to reassess homes in black neighborhoods, that has left these houses with assessments that are too high and which have allowed the city to collect more tax dollars in this segregated neighborhood than they do in wealthier sections of the city where, inexplicably, assessments are lower. 

Now Ben Carson plans to make it more difficult to fight these outdated assessments, to go before the city and present a case for reassessment. It is quite technical and diabolical. In order to make a case for reassessment you must present a list of every reason the city could give for turning you down and then you must refute each argument. In other words, you must now possess some kind of assessment ESP that, of course, does not exist. You must read the city’s mind, a city that can just invent new reasons for why they cannot offer you a reassessment. This directly affects the wealth that should accrue to black homeowners, and does accrue to white people every day from owning a house. 

The article also discusses “balloon loans” which make an initial mortgage payment affordable and then raises it out of reach at a later date. All this creativity expended to keep black people from succeeding in America – no wonder we are becoming a decaying nation. We are putting our creative talents to use in the service of the wrong tasks. Martin Luther King, Jr., you left us way too soon, the battle not nearly done, and I’m sorry if your sadness at the evils in the world will not allow you unalloyed enjoyment of the joys of the afterlife. 

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