Martin Luther King would be elated, but not completely satisfied
September 7, 2011
I have read the OP-ED �Dr. King Weeps from his Grave,� (New York Times 8/26/11), by Professor Cornel West and I am flabbergasted by some of the flaws incorporated in the corpus of the professor�s opinion essay. Professor West�s reiteration of Martin Luther King�s (MLK) thesis of racism and poverty as catastrophes is palatable to me, but his claim of �a new Jim Crow� is out of historical context. Yes, de facto segregation unfortunately lingers to this day in American society, but the United States has made great progress since the days of the historic Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.
Our inquiry or critique of American society should be reflective of the scope of African American experience in the context of the general American experience; and subsequently, we must embrace a larger perspective that links the context of African American life vis-�-vis the gains they have made in the last five decades and the changes that the United States has undergone since the days of de jure segregation. Unless we reckon with these hard facts, we may end up only cajoling the �race matters� issue to the point of meaninglessness.
Professor West blames President Obama for falling �tragically short of fulfilling King�s prophetic legacy.� I don�t think this is a fair statement, but I suspect that Cornel West has subconsciously but falsely assumed that a Black president could have dramatically and/or miraculously solve the African-American problem. In point of fact, he seems to forget that Obama is an American president who happens to be black and he does not exclusively represent African-Americans (and he should not) nor does he serve as a spokesman for black people. If he does, he should be the head of the NAACP or the Urban League and not the president of the United States. The only problem I see with Obama is his claim of �I am the dream,� a parenthetically misleading claim that needs to be scrutinized and criticized. Just because we have a black president does not logically follow that we are witnessing a post-racial American society. By the same token, the United States now is not the same country that the eminent Barbadian literary voice George Lamming perceived (�racism as part of American culture�) four decades ago, although I must admit that racism has diminished but not vanished and racial prejudice is still embedded in the larger American psychological makeup.
�King weeps from his grave,� says Cornel West, and tells us further that MLK �never confused substance with symbolism.� I agree with the latter statement and West is right that we must indeed be careful not to settle down with symbolism only, but we must also be careful not to make simplistic dichotomies as if substance and symbolism could not be expressed in tandem. In this context, thus, I argue that MLK would have been elated but not completely satisfied if he was still alive and be able to witness the progress African Americans have made since his departure in 1968.
As far as I am concerned, Obama�s assumption of power is both substantive and symbolic, and it is not without reason that the Reverend Jesse Jackson wept and drenched his face with tears when the president-elect Barak Obama delivered his acceptance speech in Chicago.
Finally, Cornel West tells us that �King�s response to our crisis can be put in one word: Revolution. A revolution�that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens.� This is a deeply flawed and ambiguously suspended argument. What kind of revolution is Cornel talking about? At this juncture of world history, the notion of social revolutions (if that is what the author is suggesting) is laughable even to the old guards of the Soviets and the present leaders of China, who without doubt have chosen the capitalist path to development. At present, nations all over have acknowledged the inexorable march of the market economy (coupled by democratic systems) and their priority, so it seems, is industrial policy that could create a sizable middle class that, in turn, creates wealth.
African Americans should not be distracted by the white-black dichotomy and should not have the illusion of a utopia that would be established as a result of a revolution; and instead of ruminating with disappointment and exhibiting obdurate propensities, as some Black leaders do, they must indulge in the wealth-making process and redeem themselves from abject poverty. That would trigger tears of joy unto MLK and fulfill his prophecies!
Note: This opinion essay was faxed to the New York Times OP-ED editors on August 29, 2011 and there was no response from the editors. We have assumed that they are not interested in publishing it and we decided to publish it on various websites.
Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia is professor of African and African American Studies at Lehman College/CUNY and professor of International Studies at the Central Connecticut State University, and he can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org for constructive and educational feedback.