Fifty-two years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream. Most of us could recall the most famous line of that speech from memory: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” With his signature, flowing rhetoric, King dreamed of a future where there would be a putting away of enmity between the races, a forging of friendships based not on the outward appearance, but on the heart.
Fifty-Two Years Later: Mizzou/Yale
Fifty-two years later, America is clearly nowhere close to King’s vision. This has been reinforced by the recent wave of minority student protests sparked by Missouri and Yale. While they have come in various flavors, several common patterns have emerged. Primarily, they have sparked a nation-wide witch-hunt against school administrators perceived as “not doing enough” to address alleged incidents of individual student racism (even though many of these would have been impossible to prevent, such as an incident out of Mizzou where a drunk white student disrupted a school play by randomly shouting the n-word). Moreover, nearly all of them have in common the demand for mandatory “sensitivity training” and an increase in the hiring of both racial and sexual minorities, regardless of other abilities or qualifications.
In some cases, students are not even protesting on the basis of direct offenses. At Yale, faculty member Erika Christakis was forced to resign for questioning the way Intercultural Affairs micromanaged Halloween costumes, saying that get-ups like an Indian headdress should not be banned merely because they might be perceived as offensive. Still other complaints are not even directed towards people, but towards vocabulary. At Princeton, they have successfully demanded that the phrase “college masters” be replaced with “heads.”
Considering the real injustices that these students’ forebears suffered, the question must be asked: Does this really honor their legacy? If so, how?
What Manner of March?
Some of the reports coming out of these schools are so outrageous that they cause me to wonder what Martin Luther King would say if he were reading the news today.
When a Latino student pointed Dean Mary Spellman of Claremont McKenna College to an article about creating a “safe space” on campus for minority students, Spellman responded with concern and enthusiasm. In her brief e-mail, which you can read here, she offers to meet and discuss how to serve students who “don’t fit the CMC mold.” Based on this single phrase, despite Spellman’s obvious desire to accommodate, a body of minority students called for her resignation, and they got it. If Martin Luther King were here today, I wonder, whom would he call out? Dean Spellman, or the students who bullied her into stepping down?
When an Asian girl at a Claremont McKenna protest began to speak up and share her experiences of racism, she was mocked and shouted down by African-American students. Why? Because in her experience, she had been insulted by black men, not white men. Her story didn’t belong. She was unwelcome. Meanwhile, in Amherst, Massachusetts, protestors have demanded discipline and “re-education” for students who put up posters saying “All Lives Matter.” They have demanded the same for students who made posters that promoted free speech. Strangely, I don’t recall the part in Martin Luther King’s speech where he envisioned friendship and brotherhood among “all of God’s children, except Asians and anyone else whose perspective differs from yours.”
Some tactics of the movement are even more, shall we say, direct. In Dartmouth College, a group of protestors shouting the slogan “Black lives matter” marched through a library, invading study spaces and harassing white students. One student who tried to escape the library was hounded by a group who showered her with obscenities. Another woman was physically shoved against a wall as protestors flung the epithet “filthy white b****” in her face. Ironically, one of the protestors proudly reported the incident as “standing up for our brothers and sisters… who are staring terrorism and assault directly in the face.” Martin Luther King marched with dignity and with a cause, but what manner of march is this?
Certainly, there are conversations that could be had about race relations, police brutality, and other serious issues. For instance, the sickening death of Eric Garner raises questions about police practice that should concern every American citizen. Then there are stories from people like T. K. Coleman, who was stopped and frisked with his wife one night for no probable cause. Unfortunately, these protestors are clouding the issues with their petty vindictiveness. The more they obsess over trivialities, harass innocent people, and seek scapegoats for every slight real or imagined, the wearier America grows of the race conversation, and understandably so.
Moreover, honest conversation is impossible if half of the truth is stifled. To acknowledge that people like T. K. have been treated unjustly is one thing. To focus on only one side of the story while stifling stories of violence or racism from the other side is another.
Free at Last
In official statements, these protestors have made compassion and truth their by-words. But their actions represent neither. Whatever the path towards racial reconciliation may look like, they are not walking it.
What, then, does the path look like? In the spirit of Thomas Sowell, I am a firm believer that virtually none of this world’s problems will have solutions until the world is remade altogether. But on an individual level, on a church level, I believe there is no better place to start working towards the future than with King’s vision. His was a vision of mutual understanding and easy companionship, of tolerance and more than tolerance. It was a vision of truth brought into the light.
In the meantime, America’s citizens cannot hope to realize the dream of Martin Luther King until they recognize that it leaves no place for pettiness, bitterness, and contempt towards one’s fellow man. Only when these things are laid aside will men of every race be, indeed, “free at last.”