Cashing In On That Bad Check

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressing the crowd prior to delivering his “I Have A Dream” speech.  Source: outsidethebeltway.com

Martin Luther King Day has come and gone.  But I still want to offer some thoughts.

When I was in college at Indiana in the ’80s, a campus group sponsored a discussion during MLK week.  The topic was something like “after the Civil Rights Movement, where do we go now?”  I remember commenting that what the Civil Rights Movement accomplished was the removal of legal barriers to economic progress, and that we were now entering a more difficult period to understand — one in which the hearts of white Americans would have to change, and more would be expected of African-Americans.

Thirty years later I’d amend that comment.  I’d say today that the Civil Rights Movement removed the legal but race-based barriers to progress, yet left in place all the ostensibly race-neutral laws that nonetheless have a race-specific impact.

In the 19th and 20th centuries Southern cities perfected the implementation and spread of race-based Jim Crow laws that kept races separated.  However, Northern cities perfected the practice of implementing “race-neutral” laws and policies that had the same impact but could elude direct charges of racism.  This is a legacy that still affects Rust Belt cities and hampers their revitalization to this day.

What exactly are those laws and policies?  Tacit agreement on how we fund public education locally, leading to wide disparities.  The prosecution of the War on Drugs, leading to higher rates of incarceration on drug charges by African-Americans despite lower levels of drug use when compared to whites.  And so much related to housing and land use — urban renewal that wiped out whole neighborhoods; the construction of highways that destroyed neighborhood networks; the concentration of public housing in already-poor areas as a policy of containment; redlining and blockbusting; the spread of strong-arm law-and-order tactics that drive wedges between police and community.

These de facto discrimination policies — policies that disproportionately impact African-Americans, intended or unintended — were largely the creation of the elite and establishment of Northern cities.  The Rust Belt cities, stretching in an arc around the southern shores of the Great Lakes from Rochester, NY to Milwaukee, WI, have fared worst at trying to get beyond that legacy.

Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech is a soaring piece of rhetoric that certainly stands among the most revered and honored speeches in world history, but most people focus on the end of the speech — the Dream.  That is a dangerous delusion that nearly all of us have fallen for.  By focusing only on the “Dream” we absolve ourselves from doing anything to address past misdoings.  And there have been misdoings.  In fact, Dr. King spent much of the early and middle parts of his speech making the case that it was time for America to redeem its “bad check” to African-Americans:

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

The fight is not over for racial equality in America, but we always need to remind ourselves of how the battlefield looks today.  

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