Today, Martin Luther King Jr. was born. This man would go on to lead a nation through radical change and enlightenment. His sermons and speeches would be listened to for years after his assassination. Dr. King was inspiration to a nation and some would claim he still is. At some point in their lives, students in America have written or read essays on this national hero. He has become a symbol of equality and civil rights.
But what is missing out of our conversation today when we talk about Dr. King? The rights that Dr. King, SNCC, and so many others fought for is still being fought for today. We often talk about civil rights as if it is a thing of the past. The 1960s movement has come and gone. We have been enlightened. Dr. King has finished what he started. But has he?
It is a simple statement of fact that the U.S. Census Bureau reports that only 13.2% of Americans are black. Yet, nearly one million African-Americans are incarcerated. Here is a list of other facts taken directly from the NAACP website concerning minorities and the prison system:
- African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population
- African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites
- Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population
- According to Unlocking America, if African American and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates of whites, today’s prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50%
- One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime
- 1 in 100 African American women are in prison
- Nationwide, African-Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, 46% of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice).
Black men and women make up nearly half of the prison population. A black American is more likely to be pulled over than an Asian American or a white American. We can blame the police force for their racial profiling in the justice system, but it’s more than that. It is the system itself that perpetuates racial profiling and racism. In 2015, we saw a rise in the deaths of black men and women across the media by police force. Americans were shot down, incarcerated, starved, and denied basic human rights by the judicial system that claimed justice. For what? Failing to use a turn signal? Looking suspicious? The list could go on and on. The mainstream media has only been showing it this year. What about previous years? Can we really believe that this is the first time this has happened since 1968? Absolutely not. Dr. King’s work for the advancement of black men and women in this country is not over. It has never been over.
So, what are you going to do about it? What does this mean to you? If you’re like me, a white American, your first thought is, Well, I’m not a racist. This is false. Just because we are individually PC does not mean that racism is not bred into us by the system that claimed the lives of Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, and so many others. Our fellow Americans who died had families, had children, had friends, had hopes, had dreams, had life.
The danger is to wallow in feelings of this guilt and racism. It is paramount that we do not let this guilt overcome us. Nothing good will come of it. Recognize the racism you have internalized. What can you do? Join your local NAACP chapter. Petition for the revisal of court cases involving the death and mistreatment of your fellow Americans. DO NOT SKIM OVER MEDIA ARTICLES FOCUSED ON THE DEATH OF AFRICAN AMERICANS AND OTHER MINORITIES. The media is trying to sell its news. If you do not care and do not read articles about the death of African-Americans, then they will stop selling it, but it will not stop happening. We cannot let this be glossed over. People are dying in the misdirected acts of the justice system. The justice system that we think of comfortably as a safety net for America.
Perhaps, the most important thing that we can do is listen. Open your eyes and your ears to what’s happening. Do not talk over the minorities in our nation. Do not assume to understand the effect that stereotypes and profiling have on African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, Syrian refugees, and other minorities in this country. Listen and encourage others to listen to voices shouting for basic human rights. The right to eat, to fair counsel, to be treated with mutual respect are all rights we possess as white Americans, but minorities struggle to achieve. If you want to celebrate MLK Day and the life of a national hero, then do it with your service, do it with your heart, and do it with your ears. Listen to those who can and do speak for themselves. Service is listening.
As Dr. King said, “Everyone can be great…because everyone can serve.” And everyone can serve by listening.