Saturday, January 19, 2008

Accountability, Racism and MLK, Jr.

From today's Orlando Sentinel (why DO I continue to torture myself with reading this paper?) the My Word columnist invokes the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. in a rant on how African-Americans play the race card to escape responsibility. Under the cynical title of "Equality" he says, "Far too many people in our culture feel they are entitled to be held to a lower standard of accountability because of their race." The writer, a GenX white man from nearby suburb Winter Park, is hardly alone in making these kinds of unconsciously racist assertions. Indeed, I believe history will ultimately reflect that the most difficult and usually unaccomplished task white Americans faced in the 21st CE was coming to grips with their own racism.

While I am not obsessed with the notion of "standards" reflecting the control issues of the WASP middle class (of which I am a member), I do agree that people should be accountable for their attitudes and behaviors individually. The trouble is, that while WASP middle class folk rail self-righteously and endlessly about individual accountability, we almost inevitably fail to take collective responsibility for the social world we have created and maintain. Race may not determine "the worth of someone's place or performance" in our society but it almost always impacts what place one holds in that society and whether one has access to perform.

When I was in seminary, an African-American classmate observed in class one day that "In America we breathe racist air." All of us are affected by the pervasive racism that informs everything from our history of genocide of the Native Americans to the current xenophobic construction of immigrants. That our racism is not as blatant as it was in the still segregated early 1960s of my childhood here in Central Florida hardly means that America's "original sin," as sociologist Gunnar Myrdal described it, has gone away. Indeed, subtle but stubbornly pervasive racism of the 21st CE is much harder to get at than firehose wielding redneck cops in Birmingham and clownish Republican governors standing in schoolhouse doors in Tallahassee. It is hardly surprising that we would wish to be relieved of having to be accountable for this history and its ongoing legacy but that doesn't mean we get to enter into self-congratulatory mode and pretend that racism no longer affects our daily lives in America if we wish to be seen as having any credibility.

When we point our finger at those who "play the race card" in our society today, we fail to see the other four fingers pointing back at our own racism. I believe King's point was that we should unclench our fists of self-righteous judgment and open our hands to embrace the other. Little wonder we responded to his prophetic ministry which served as a mirror to reflect our racism back to us by killing him.

Happy Birthday, Martin. The struggle continues.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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