Mandatory MLK-Day Online Re-Reading List
Every year we celebrate Martin Luther King in the same way we used to celebrate Washington and Lincoln on those February Mondays before MLK Day — which is to say: not at all, really. Oh sure, your kids might have had an assembly last week, and you’ll have to arrange child care today as well as go without mail. And if you’re in a certain kind of industry, you’ve got to day off and you’re probably doing something fun — but whatever that fun thing is, it probably has nothing to do with Dr. King.
Ironically, the one place in our culture that can reliably be counted on to focus on MLK-the-man on MLK Day is conservative talk radio — and they, too, are a kind-of-testament to how far MLK has come in our culture. Prior to ten years ago when I turned talk radio on, all I heard was endless rants about how awful the man was: He was a communist. He was a socialist. He was unfaithful to his wife, and therefor underserving of our admiration. He took the spotlight away from the black in our history who really deserved our attention — even if the only name of a worthy historical black man radio hosts could ever come up with 20 years ago seemed to be George Washington Carver. (FTR, that expanded a bit in 2009. For some reason after Obama took to the White House, every conservative radio host suddenly knew who Booker T. Washington was.) Now, however, conservative talk show hosts don’t just forgive MLK his supposed flaws — over the past six years or so they’ve posthumously adopted him as one of their own, pitching the idea that it was always liberals and progressives that had it in for the civil rights leader.
And if you’re a total ass, of course, you use the holiday to tell everybody how exactly like MLK you really are.
But I put it to you that Martin Luther King deserves more of our mental bandwidth than this, especially today. And so if you’re looking to honor the man, here are some items you can find online that you should go and re-read — or read for the first time if you haven’t had the opportunity yet. And because of what Dr. King stood, worked and died for, I’m going to forgo the obvious request to reread his I Have a Dream Speech or Letters From a Birmingham Jail. Indeed, I’m not going to steer you toward Dr. King’s writings at all.
Instead, I am going to charge you with reading — and grappling with — the issues that I believe Dr. King would most like us to be dealing with today in his name. To that end, I ask that you celebrate MLK day by re-reading one or all of the following:
The Case for Reparations: Penned by the wonderful Ta-Nehisi Coates, this essay/piece of journalism/call to action was a game changer for me. And while I grant that it may not be for you, it will give you pause regardless of your stance on the subject of reparations. Warning: You should probably leave all of your preconceptions about reparations, the worth of talking about them at the door. I say this to conservatives and liberals alike.
Racial Disparities in Incarceration Increase Acceptance of Punitive Policies: Published this summer, this study from Stanford drew conclusions that are deeply disturbing:
A white female researcher asked 62 white voters to watch a video containing mug shots of male inmates. Some of the participants saw a video in which 25 percent of the mug shots were of black men, while others saw a video in which the percentage of black men among the mug shots rose to 45 percent.
The participants then had an opportunity to sign a real petition aimed at easing the severity of California’s three-strikes law. “It seemed like a great opportunity – a real-life political issue – to test this question of whether blacker prison populations lead people to accept these more punitive policies,” Eberhardt said.
The results were clear. Over half of the participants who’d seen the mug shots with fewer black men signed the petition, whereas only 27 percent of people who viewed the mug shots containing a higher percentage of black inmates agreed to sign. This was the case regardless of how harsh participants thought the law was…
Many legal advocates and social activists seem to assume that bombarding the public with images, statistics and other evidence of racial disparities will motivate people to join the cause and fight inequality. But we found that, ironically, exposure to extreme racial disparities may make the public less, and not more, responsive to attempts to lessen the severity of policies that help maintain those disparities.
The full study is hidden unless you are a subscriber to Psychological Science, but I firmly believe that the openly readable results themselves are enough to chew on — and that they make us so uncomfortable that we probably won’t. I’ve noted this sturdy in three prior posts, and each time the conversation in the threads has conspicuously avoided even the most tangential mention of it. This study deserved more thought and conversation as a nation than we have given it.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness: OK, OK, I admit it. You can’t technically read this one online, since it’s a book. (You can, however, find a decent description and excerpt here.) Still, it’s important enough that you should find a way to read it anyway. Published in 2010, Michelle Alexander’s book on how we’ve switched from disenfranchising African Americans in our communities to largely eliminating them altogether is startling. If I had a guess as to what single issue Dr. King would be focusing on today were he alive, it would hands down be Alexander’s findings.
So go forth and read. And think. And grow.
And since I don’t think I’ve said it yet: Happy MLK Day, everyone.