Want to Honor Martin Luther King Jr.? Don’t Talk About Race

The Austin Cathedral held a Memorial Mass for Martin Luther King Jr. yesterday and I couldn’t help but feel a strong sense of unity. People of all races from all over the city, state, and country even joined together to honor one of the most influential personalities and one of the greatest people of modern history as we worshiped and took part in communion. But that sense of unity dissolved just minutes into the homily.

The visiting pastor, articulate and evidently a warm and loving person, addressed only some of the parishioners—saying “We as African Americans…,” and spoke only of white-on-black racism. There were more than just African Americans in the congregation yesterday and, as I’ve written about before, racism isn’t a white-only problem, it’s an everybody problem. Discrimination isn’t just a fight for blacks; it’s a fight for all humanity, and focusing solely on the white-on-black racism relegates the issue to a simple struggle of us-against-them, which it is decidedly not.

MLKSome people, including the celebrant yesterday apparently, are still focused on the racial differences in our country and feel that honoring Dr. King is just a black thing—a time to remember the cultural history of African Americans and struggles they have faced. It struck me that this mentality—or even talking about race at all—does a great disservice to Dr. King’s legacy. It’s true that Dr. King spoke of the white-on-black racism so prevalent in his time, but he also spoke in universal truths that applied to everyone, often quoting Aquinas, Augustine, and Socrates. His primary purpose was to end the unjust black/white segregation in the South, but his cause was rooted in sound philosophy which resonates with everyone. King’s fight against racism was unifying; it seems that today’s fight against racism just further divides. You don’t defeat racism by focusing on race and if we want to become a truly post-racial society. As Morgan Freeman said in an interview, you stop racism by “Stop talking about it. I’m going to stop calling you a white man, and I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man.” Instead, we need to break down the divisions that keep it segregated—mentally if not physically—and focus on the underlying universal truths of human nature.

In his quintessential Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he penned, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and who can deny this universal truth? In his famous I Have a Dream speech, King boldly stated, “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.” People of any race can say that and want that goal.

Unfortunately, not everyone has taken his lead toward a universal society void of racism. One might say, well we have an African American president, surely that means we’re less racist today. But, unfortunately, racism still pervades our society, though it’s not the type that one would expect. This should be obvious, but it isn’t: voting for someone because he’s black isn’t a sign that you’re not racist, it’s a sign that you are. And when someone cries “racism!” every time that black president is criticized, the epithet speaks more about the accuser than the critic of the president.

We still live in a society in which people put skin color ahead of content of character, and until we start speaking and thinking in universals, that racism will persist.

So, what are these universal truths?

  • That every human being has Natural Rights (among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as Thomas Jefferson said) and no one can rightfully take those from him.
  • That everyone has the right to do whatever he wills as long as it doesn’t interfere with others.
  • That it is wrong to harm others.
  • That all humans are equal in dignity and value of life. [An important note here: when you hear equality bandied about these days, it usually refers to equality of wealth or status or privileges. That’s not what I’m referring to here. We shouldn’t be striving for equality in superficial aspects of life; we need to understand that we already have it in the important aspects of life.]

Those are the universal truths that we should be focusing on today in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., and every day as a testament to his legacy. When we lose sight of that ultimate goal, the danger is clear. The reaction to the police brutality cases in Ferguson and Long Island were a prime example. Like most Americans, I was shocked to hear about the cases of unjust killings, but focusing on the racism in these cases misses the root societal problems and results in a whole host of contradictory behavior. The protesters in Ferguson wanted justice—they wanted to end the blatant discrimination that goes on between police and the citizens—but in order to achieve it, they rioted, looted, and killed innocent people. Others rail against the unjust killing of two black men confronted by police but turn a blind eye to the hundreds of thousands of blacks that die at the hand of the abortionist every year. People claim that #BlackLivesMatter when they’re face-to-face with police, but not when they’re in the womb? Needless to say, King would not have been impressed at this state of affairs. This paradoxical condition is a result of focusing on a symptom instead of the problem.

Dr. King didn’t have that problem because he had a sound philosophical understanding of Natural Rights. He knew that all humans had the right to life and that every person is infinitely valuable. With that understanding it is easy to identify the illogic of racism and the injustice of segregation. The converse isn’t always true. If you focus on racism, you may not be able to make the leap back to the foundational truths of Natural Rights, hence the disturbing violence in the Ferguson aftermath. It is the sound foundation in right reason that brought King to lead the nonviolent direct action protests that changed the country; it is the lack thereof that led to the Ferguson chaos.

King said, “Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout ‘White Power!’ – when nobody will shout ‘Black Power!’ – but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.” So, I implore my fellow humans to honor this man and his ideas by not talking about race or that which separates us and instead focusing on that what unites us.