Missing the Point on MLK

Our focus on his speeches shows how much we've forgotten the difference -- one Dr. King knew well -- between words and action.

From left: Benjamin Spock, Dr. King, Father Reed (AFP/AFP/Getty)
From left: Benjamin Spock, Dr. King, Father Reed (AFP/AFP/Getty)

Besides, both Rangel’s and Mosley’s propositions are fragile even in themselves. The scholar, black or other, cringes hearing a statement like Rangel’s, fearing that he is distracting us from thinking about “institutional racism” (e.g., the boys are shooting one another because they don’t have dads). Meanwhile, if it’s whites who decided that we are “black,” then how come Tiger Woods and Ward Connerly get ‘buked and scorned if they decide that they are not all “black”? As is often said, black people are now the main enforcers of the one-drop rule.

I submit: What elates crowds about statements like Rangel’s and Mosley’s is not whether they are true or whether they point the way forward. What crowds are responding to is the manner in which these things are said: the flavor, the drama, the swagger. Rangel and Mosley were, in their way, making music. But King was about making a new world.

That, for me, is King’s most interesting message at this point: Performance alone does not make people less poor or less oppressed.

Following King for real: When Tavis Smiley convened yet another forum last week and posed Cornel West’s question from some years ago — “What can a blues nation learn from a blues people?” — we, in the name of King, properly look beyond that sonorous phraseology and ask what will concretely come out of a sense that we “blues people” are going to “teach” America anything important. The question is how to make black people’s lives better, and white people who need to buy groceries don’t have to “learn” anything in order for that to happen.

Following King for real: Other people’s performances are no more interesting than our own. Accordingly, we must question why what Sarah Palin thinks or doesn’t think about race in America should concern us more than, for example, how to make people’s lives better. When Republicans threaten to discontinue funding for shepherding ex-cons back into society — a key race issue gathering steam in New York, D.C. and elsewhere — that should concern us.

Focusing on Sarah Palin? Excuse me, but why? Indeed, you have to wonder what Dr. King would have thought about what catches our attention.

John McWhorter is a lecturer at Columbia University and a contributing editor to the New Republic.

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