January 15, 2018

Today we honor the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While there is a tendency to focus mostly on Dr. King’s inspirational speeches, for which he is rightly commemorated, today is a reminder that his legacy also stems from his radically inclusive beliefs, actions, and commitment to combatting injustice everywhere, even when uncomfortable or inconvenient.

In his work as a civil rights leader, Dr. King continually challenged unjust laws and racist policies. At great personal risk, he organized boycotts, sit-ins, and led campaigns and marches. Dr. King lived, and died, shedding light on every area where racism and other forms of dehumanization were prevalent in society—which in America was everywhere: in the segregated education system, in the suppression of voting rights, in the pernicious and devastating effects of poverty, in the public spaces which only whites could access.

Dr. King's primary focus was on people and their humanity. He was committed to exposing what he described as the triple evils of militarism, racism, and economic exploitation. He argued that people must be more important than profit and that extreme wealth inequality moved our country closer to spiritual death. King's deep spiritual grounding caused him to embrace love and inclusion as he challenged corrupt systems. His concern was not just with the condition of Black Americans, although that was central to his work. King did not believe we should be about America first or white people first or Black people first. He truly believed that we all are interconnected in a garment of mutuality.

Just as King directly confronted racism and injustice, we must continue to do the same today. Racial resentment and racist attitudes are now evident in the highest office of this nation, and we must reckon with that as a country. While much ink is spilled over whether our current president is an actual racist, what is inside the recesses of his mind should be of less concern to us than what he says, does, and supports as president of the United States. Racism is not just an attitude. It is a set of practices with consequences for the target group. And without a doubt the president's policies and practices are racist, as well as sexist and xenophobic. He may sign a proclamation honoring King, but he also appointed someone with a known history of affiliating with the KKK as our nation’s highest legal representative. He struggles to condemn white nationalists in Charlottesville, but publicly denigrates athletes who protest police killings of black and brown Americans.

Yes, Trump's words are more racist than any president in modern history. We should not be too surprised. As a candidate, and long before, Trump has been denigrating people of color, women, immigrants (not from Norway), people who are disabled, gay and lesbian, among other groups. And while Republicans expressed some disapproval to candidate Trump, they tend to rally around the more dangerous President Trump.

To truly live up to the example that Dr. King set, we have to stop excusing those, like the Republicans, who stand silent and complicit, even as they push an agenda that further distributes wealth and power from the poor to the elites. We have to acknowledge that too many in the media, and the electorate, continue to equivocate on what our President “really” means and who spend too much time struggling to come up with new intent or terminology that would validate his latest offensive remarks, even as they ignore his policies and behavior.

While Trump trades on racial and national division, Dr. King embraced inclusion and brotherhood and sisterhood of all people. While Trump trades in hate and belittlement, Dr. King embraced love and uplifting. And this Martin Luther King, Jr holiday is especially poignant because 2018 marks the 50th year anniversary of Dr. King's assassination.

It was also 50 years ago that a historic report was published that dealt with the same themes that King dedicated his life to. The Kerner Commission Report was a pivotal document in American history. Focused on race, inequality, and segregation in America, and their systemic underpinnings, the Kerner report came out of a bipartisan commission appointed by President Johnson to conduct an investigation into the causes of urban uprisings that had shaken American cities. The findings of the Kerner Commission were put into a comprehensive report revealing, in what would become its most famous line, that “Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white— separate and unequal.”

Today the findings of the Kerner report have never seemed more relevant. From Ferguson to Baltimore, killings of unarmed black Americans sparked the #BlackLivesMatter movement and reawakened many Americans’ consciousness to the pervasiveness of segregation and inequality. Protests on college campuses, state capitols, and in public spaces over monuments that honor figures responsible for slavery and segregation have drawn our national attention.

Just as in 1968, racial relations remain today at the forefront of American political and social life. It is for these reasons that this year we are organizing Race and Inequality in America: Kerner@50, to be held at UC Berkeley and at Johns Hopkins University next month. The Kerner report was pivotal in our understanding of how race must be central to any accurate understanding of where we are, and where we need to go, as an American society. What would a contemporary Kerner report look like today? What would a policy agenda that addresses the realities of a still-too-segregated and still-too-highly-unequal society look like today? These are some of the questions our conference will address.

When we gather next month to discuss these themes we must, just as Dr. King did, expose the uncomfortable truths of where we are as a country today. We have a federal government consistently hostile to poor people who are disproportionately black and brown. We face a strategic campaign of nationalized voter suppression. Our levels of economic and wealth inequality are alarmingly high and threaten our democracy. Too many unarmed people of color are still being killed by the police.

As we mark a half century from the final year of Dr. King's life, we must work together to reclaim that dream of equality that Dr. King had, and collectively envision what it would take to realize it in every major area of American life. We must lead with shared values that prioritize our essential humanity. And like King, we must insist on our interconnectedness and that “hate cannot drive out hate."

For those who believe one is not better or worse because of your race, who believe a person’s moral worth cannot be determined by which country you were born in, who believe a person’s dignity has nothing to do with how much wealth your family has, the commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is more than just a shallow legacy to wave at once a year. Dr. King's legacy is a blueprint, a compact for how we should live our lives and evaluate our policies. It is a call to be a human being.
Flyer image for Kerner Conference
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Haas Institute for a Fair & Inclusive Society
UC Berkeley. 
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