Mid-January is the time when Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday is commemorated. Cities, towns, and colleges across the country lift their voices and rise up the language of Dr. King’s dream that people are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. They cherry pick the King dream, forgetting that he also spoke to the “check marked insufficient funds” and the fact that African American people always got the short end of the economic stick.
Members of Congress, mayors and governors issue proclamations and speak to their constituents about the dream. Some of these speakers have worked in direct opposition to King’s dream, cutting food stamps, refusing to extend unemployment coverage for those whose checks were cut off on December 28, nearly a month ago. They talk the talk and they don’t walk the walk. They are marching to the dream of a different drummer.
I am writing after the fact because it is never after the fact. The hypocrites who rail about social and economic justice need to be held to some standard. They need to be confronted about their hypocrisy around the dream. They need to read all of King, not just the passages that mollify them and make them feel good. They cannot dream a dream of social equity without working for economic equity.
I have the same criticism for my hip-hop brothers and sisters who can set almost anything to music. Why not take the words “cash the check” and educate our young people about what Dr. King really said. The generation who can electric slide from the Negro National Anthem (I am not kidding – I’ve seen it) ought to be able to slide their way to a freedom song. Instead they mostly myopically enjoy the music, not the words.
My preacher brothers and sisters, too, take snippets of the King dream and turn it into a sermon. Why not tell the whole story about Dr. King being rejected by his supporters when he connected poverty and racism with Vietnam. Supporters turned their backs on him. The foundation that once embraced his work dropped him because he told the truth. People who vied for his company suddenly shunned him. Now, in death, he is a hero.
In 1968, 72 percent of all White people disapproved of Dr. King, as did 55 percent of all Black people. Black folks have racial fealty, but not racial radicalism. Were it not for racism, too many African American people would embrace some aspects of conservatism. That’s why too many of us celebrate President Barack Obama without analyzing the work he has done.
Indeed, Africa American people have a schizophrenic relationship with President Obama. We like his swag, his confident representation of a powerful Black man. We are ambivalent about the ways he has used his power, too often to essentially ignore the challenges that the Black community faces. He says this year will be his year of action around income inequality, poverty, and unemployment, and we all understand that action trickles down. Will it trickle down to us? Our president, he of Black man swagger and confidence, will not say.
What will this year of action mean? Five areas have been selected as experimental areas where funds and focus will be targeted. Each of these areas has challenges, but it would have been powerful if he had highlighted the area, just a stone’s throw away from the White House, where African American men and women have unemployment rates that exceed 20 percent, where teens who want to work cannot find jobs, where the King dream is nothing more than a nightmare for them, where their pain is hardly addressed.
Hypocrisy and hip-hopcrisy. Elders and young’uns both speak of the dream but hardly embrace it. There is a week of commemoration and then we move on. If the dream is real, it is not a weeklong dream; it is an affirmation of those things Dr. King cared about – the eradication of poverty, social and economic equity, voting rights, and peace. We have attained none of these dreams, yet we commemorate the dreamer.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.