This year marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, prompting a larger-than-usual explosion of racial commentary from all directions. As happens every year, the vast majority of perspectives neglect that this very event was originally poised to become the biggest, most violent race riot in American history. Engineered by the Kennedy administration and civil rights leaders, the turnaround of the March into a peaceful protest caused Malcolm X to denounce it as “the Farce on Washington.” What took place at our nation’s capital on August 28, 1963 managed to affect social reform without resorting to violence—a wonderful thing, to be sure. However, that talking heads routinely discuss such milestones without bothering to contextualize them points out that something big is missing in today’s racial dialogue.
To see what exactly that would be, let’s reexamine a central tenet of the Civil Rights Movement, conveniently encapsulated and oft-quoted within Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” The notion put forth here is both more radical and fundamental than the demands of the March itself, e.g., minimum wage, desegregation, etc. Simply put, the March was significant in that it popularized the idea that people of all colors could be brought together by a common cause. Particularly under the influence of Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Movement did not just have political motivations, but humanitarian ones as well.
However, to this day, it’s chiefly the political part that inspires action. The ideas behind “I Have a Dream” are more often used to motivate political change than to promote multicultural values. (Malcolm X despised the term “Civil” Rights Movement; he saw the plight of the colored American as a human rights issue worthy of international attention.) In a sense, one could say that the balance of the modern racial dialogue tends to lean much more toward the ideas of Booker T. Washington than those of W.E.B. DuBois; the problem here is that no amount of civil activism within political, legal, or even economic spheres will eradicate the simple cross-cultural misunderstandings that are so often the source of racial prejudice.
Our forgetfulness has two big impacts. First, racism moves from the systemic and political to the nuanced and routine. You don’t have to go far to see this. Who can forget the huge backlash following Nina Davuluri’s crowning as Miss America? The fact that an American citizen with Indian parents could win the nation’s most hallowed beauty pageant baffled and outraged viewers, many of whom proceeded to vent their anger and display their ignorance through now-infamous tweets. A bit closer to home was controversy surrounding Politically Incorrect Maroon Confessions last year, in which anonymous posts referenced racial stereotypes which transcended politically incorrect and reached blatantly racist. Finally, in a less publicized display of racism, a video of KTVU San Francisco incorrectly listing the names of crew onboard Asiana Flight 214 (“Captain Sum Ting Wong,” “Wi Tu Lo,” etc.) went viral on the internet; the clip was posted with such titles as “Epic Fail” or “LOL,” thus generating the sort of comedic response that the author of the prank no doubt intended. Forget the fact that this was aired in a city whose mayor, Ed Lee, is Asian-American. It is unfortunate that race is so often a source of disparity rather than unity. While one would hope that colorblindness need not follow from equality, it is wrong for anyone’s dignity to be hurt by that which makes us unique and beautiful.
Second, our inability to inclusively incorporate multiculturalism as an everyday philosophy rather than a political policy means that we fail to apply the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement to the cause of any socially disadvantaged group in the U.S. There isn’t very much to explain here. The catchphrase “gay is the new black,” whether you agree with it or not, captures the notion that members of the LGBTQ community do not enjoy the same rights as heterosexuals, e.g., the right to marry in the majority of states. Further, the homosexual community frequently finds itself the butt of jokes and insults by virtually everybody else; homophobic slurs pervade everything from hip-hop to casual conversation. Other countries are taking notice: Earlier this year, the People’s Republic of China published their inaugural human rights report of the U.S., citing “serious sex, racial, and religious discrimination” as well as our tremendous income gap as evidence of our hypocritical stance as the world’s defender of human rights. Go figure.
To be totally clear: I am by no means saying that civil rights advocacy with regard to race is harmful, or that we should do less of it. By all means, keep at it, and all power to those who put up the fight for their rights. It would also be incorrect to say that things aren’t getting better; the fact that our president is African-American should be indicative of our judgment criteria resting not on the color of his skin, but on the content of his character. Still, the continued pervasiveness of stereotypes too often remains at odds with the steps we have made toward racial equality. The legacy of the Civil Rights Movement is so much bigger than monuments, the Civil Rights Act, or Black History Month. But if we forget what it is, there won’t be one.
Ken Jung is a first-year in the College.