Each year we celebrate the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with the usual pomp and circumstance that will include parades, luncheons and passionate speeches. There also will be the obligatory reciting of Dr. King’s numerous inspirational quotes.
One of his most powerful quotes was about wanting to live in a world where his children would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. As we reflect on King’s life, we are still being judged by our skin color with deadly consequences. Race still matters and remains as divisive an issue as it has ever been.
Nowhere is this more evident than in police and criminal court relations with the black community.
Among several high profile cases, a Texas grand jury recently decided there would be no indictments in the death of Sandra Bland, an African American woman who died in police custody. However, the arresting officer Brian Encinia was indicted for perjury.
Also, an Ohio grand jury decided there would be no indictments in the death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African American boy shot by a Cleveland police officer after his pellet gun was thought to be a handgun.
Seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by a white police officer who had a history of citizen complaints filed against him. Responding to a father’s desperate call to help his son, Chicago police officers shot and killed 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier along with his 55-year-old neighbor, Bettie Jones.
All people should be outraged by these senseless deaths. Dr. King fought not only for the rights of black people; he fought for human rights.
Race is almost always a subtext of the most politically charged issues. The rhetoric of Donald Trump and his false and racist comments about Mexican immigrants and Muslims have gone beyond the pale of reasonable political discourse, yet many disenfranchised Americans have embraced his vitriolic rhetoric.
If there were any doubt that race, and specifically racism, was a driving force of much of the support for Trump, the fact that his campaign has garnered the support of white supremacist groups provides evidence that his message appeals to people’s baser and nativist instincts.
Some people naively believe, as one tea party and Donald Trump supporter recently told me, that racism does not exist among Republicans. Clearly racism exists within both major political parties, but the difference is that social science research has shown that the racial biases of voters help the GOP win elections.
In the “affluenza” case, the Texas judge who sentenced then 16-year-old Ethan Couch to probation and rehabilitation after the boy killed four people while driving drunk also sentenced a 14-year-old African American teen to 10 years in a juvenile detention center for killing a guy after he punched him and his head struck the pavement.
Although the circumstances of the cases differ, the fact remains that a white teen killed four people and a black teen killed one person.
Race is obviously implicated in the fate of affirmative action in the Fisher vs. University of Texas Supreme Court case. When Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that African American students would be better served by going to less-advanced schools where they can do well, he perpetuated the commonly held racist belief of black intellectual inferiority.
In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ bestselling book “Between the World and Me,” he laments to his son about a world where the reality of race and racism results in the differential treatment of blacks and the indiscriminate and senseless deaths of so many black males and females, with nobody held accountable.
Dr. King understood that just because you are not personally impacted by injustice does not mean you are not affected by injustice. Each act of injustice with no accountability takes a little more out of our collective humanity.
The morally just world that Dr. King envisioned will only exist when the injustices faced by black people and other people of color are acknowledged and acted upon by white people whose belief in fairness, equality and justice become more than empty rhetoric. Let’s hope that as we celebrate MLK Day, this year is a better year and reveals the better angels of our nature.
Kevin Cokley is a professor of educational psychology and African and African diaspora studies at The University of Texas at Austin.
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