The King Holiday in a new century

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, Jan. 17, 2010 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

The King Holiday in a new century
By Aaron J. Brown

How are race relations in your neighborhood?

Yes, that’s still awkward, isn’t it? Just ask Harry Reid, who had some rough headlines last week after using some archaic racial words. There were some who felt that the election of Barack Obama to the presidency would, in itself, cure this nation of its original sin, the vast inequality between humans that began the moment the first Europeans stepped on the shores of this continent, themselves fleeing inequalities in Europe. Unfortunately, our first black president can’t sign (or bomb) anything to make that better.

President Obama tried to tell us this a couple times in deep, sober speeches. Communication teachers like me raved over the well-constructed address President Obama delivered on race during the campaign: honest, forward-looking, and grounded in historical context. But few of us, or anyone else, listened with any intent of changing our minds.

Incremental change makes for weak cable news fodder and snooze-worthy blog posts, so the hell with it. We like our fights heated and personal in this country, and race makes it really easy to spot the other side. There are a couple of angry gears our society hasn’t ground since, well 1968, and the media isn’t afraid to up-shift the drama. Resentment is about the easiest crop in the world to grow.

Tomorrow brings the national holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who as the old song says “freed a lot of people, but it seems the good, they die young.” Perhaps most of us believe that Dr. King gets a holiday because he won, in his case rights for millions of African Americans. That’s why we celebrate George Washington and Abraham Lincoln on Presidents Day. Washington beat the British in the Revolutionary War, and before that he whipped the French. Two empires! Lincoln beat the rebels and slavery. America Rules!

In the fervor of honoring victory among the population, we forget that these men are accorded holidays for what they refused to do. Washington refused a crown. Lincoln refused to let the union divide or for slavery to continue even though that would have been much better politics in his time. And King refused to limit his message of equality and justice to racial identity or civic laws. Indeed, much of his greatest work centered around the argument that segregation and oppression weren’t just bad for African Americans (of course they were) but that these transgressions represented tragic flaws in humanity that could, and must be repaired.

Here on the Iron Range, the change in racial attitudes since Obama’s election move at exactly the same pace as before: positively, yes, but slowly and only with the gentle progression of the generations. Our children will never even considering race to being a barrier to becoming president and yet jokes of a certain nature still bubble up from the dark corners of our society, as they do elsewhere.

Nevertheless, tomorrow represents the thought that no one individual accomplishment, certainly no one leader – not even King – can finish the work that needs to be done. In his writings, King held a deeper aspiration for the civil rights movement and its stated goal of ending the oppression of racial segregation. This aspiration was so deep, and will be so difficult to achieve that one president, or a thousand cannot succeed alone. Where there is inequity and injustice between the races, we can call foul and demand change. But what will we do about inequity and injustice between individuals, between the groups and factions of towns like this one?

What about intolerance between religions, or political beliefs, professions or even circles of friends? It’s no race war, and it plays bad on cable news (no ratings!), but only the surface of our problems appear on the news, the true enemy rests in our own hearts and those of our fellow humans. The true enemy can not be defeated with death and hate, but only with love and a desire to understand.

Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Contact him or read more at his blog or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”

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