“For some, the fact that we have Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a confirmation that the war has been won, that racism has been eliminated. That we have overcome. But we have to look at the civil rights movement the way we look at antibiotics: just because some of the symptoms of racism are clearing up, you don’t stop taking the medicine or else the malady returns even stronger than before. Recent events make clear that the disease of racism is still infecting our culture and that Martin Luther King Jr. Day needs to be a rallying cry to continue fighting the disease rather than just a pat on the back for what’s been accomplished.”
I remember the push during the ’80s to establish an MLK Day, and I wonder if a sad bargain was made by the people who most desired to commemorate his legacy. People forget that Dr. King was reviled by the majority of Americans throughout much of his life. He was deemed a radical, a Communist sympathizer, a rabble-rouser; just as his non-violent protest ways were gaining wider acceptance, the Black Power movement was seeking to discredit non-violence and pursue a more provocative approach. But in the 15 years or so after his death, many people chose to accept a sanitized version of his activism, reducing him to one speech delivered in Washington in 1963 and making him an avatar of colorblindness. The activists who pursued the holiday accepted this view of him, and buried the disruptive and contentious view of him that was closer to the truth.
I think much of white America views MLK Day as a way to commemorate the closure of a sad chapter in American history, celebrating the champion who closed it. Blacks, however, view it as the celebration of a recent champion of an ongoing effort to eradicate America’s original sin. Those differing views have yet to be reconciled.
Yesterday I had a Twitter conversation with several people. In it, I said that most people are clear in their understanding of slavery and its legacy, as well as Jim Crow and its legacy. But people are far less clear on the kind of discriminatory practices that emerged after Jim Crow, and there’s no name for it. We could use one. We may not be able to effectively attack it until we do.
We’re nearly a century into a set of practices that were first put in place in American cities at the time of the Great Migration. Some were phased out, when their racist intent was identified and challenged; new ones were established and impact us to this day. Dr. King successfully challenged Jim Crow and voting rights, but was assassinated before he could really move on to the next phase of civil rights. Our nation has been in a holding pattern since.
What are those practices? Here’s my list, with a estimate of the time period when they were most widely employed:
- Aggressive policing (1910-present)
- Restrictive covenants (1910-1960)
- Racial violence (1915-1960)
- Exclusionary zoning (1920-present)
- Mortgage redlining (1935-1995)
- Public housing (1935-1970)
- Blockbusting (1950-present)
- Urban renewal (1950-1990)
- Interstate highway system development (1955-1995)
- Inadequate local public funding (1965-present)
- Retail redlining (1965-present)
- Predatory lending (1965-present)