(I forget now where I saw this connection made between MLK and a mascot — it was on Twitter, obviously, but I forget the attribution. My apologies. It was a brilliant connection that sparked this blog post.)
So often when high-profile, mainstream issues surrounding race come to the surface and often when riots accompany those tensions, Martin Luther King, Jr. is evoked as a sort of respectability pacifist mascot. From city officials to police chiefs to those on the right (and the left) to everyone in between, MLK is prostituted around as this mascot of nonviolence, as the answer to every racial eruption, as the way to cork the bottle again. He’s the stop-gap in racial violence.
But let’s parse out the bullshit and call it for what it is. Maybe not all the time, but reading between the lines, it seems to me when people are using MLK as mascot, they’re really saying, “Why can’t you unruly niggers be more like your leader?” Well, there’s a few things wrong with that. I’ll point out some of the obvious ones:
- Martin Luther King, Jr. is dead. He was assassinated.
- Martin Luther King, Jr was and is not the head of some monolithic civil rights movement for all time. Moreover, it plays into the racial stereotype that a black person must represent all black people (and in this case, for all time, it seems).
- Martin Luther King, Jr. understood the context of riots. Those who prostitute his image, his character and his words do not.
- Martin Luther King, Jr. was the epitome of “respectability.” He wore a suit. He was religious. He spoke elegantly. It. Did. Not. Matter. He was still a “nigger” to the vast swath of white people in the 1960s.
- In some sense, the fight of today is a fight against something of a different kind. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was more overt: it being racism, it was in your face, in public bathrooms and restaurants and voting. Nowadays, it hides under the surface in our War on Drugs, mass incarceration and the streets that run red with the death of black bodies by the hands of the police. It’s a different animal. MLK is not a one-size fits all for every racial episode.
- None of this is to say that it’s not important to learn about, study, and take lessons from Martin Luther King, Jr. He was obviously an important figure. The point of contention is when he’s used in this way, as a mascot, as a way of silencing the outrage many black people feel (as their outrage continues going unheard).
The real issue is the falseness behind it. If I just evoke MLK, then I’ve done my due diligence as engaged white man. Call for peace. Peace is good, right? It depends on the type of peace you’re referring to.
One of my favorite MLK quotes, in fact, is from his “stay” in a Birmingham prison:
This mantra and fallback to “order” or put the other way, “law and order,” is usually heralded by conservative types, but it has much currency among a majority of white Americans, otherwise the current status quo of mass incarceration and the War on Drugs would not continue as is. The culture and cult of police unaccountability would not continue as it is.
It’s been said time and time again. Black people can continue to have their blood spilled in American streets. Black voices can continue to wail into the night. But, unfortunately, it matters not — in terms of actually fundamentally changing the structures and institutions which enable it — until the “silent” majority of white people, the white moderates, starts giving a shit about it.
As I said in a Tweet, those with the power do not just give it up. They may leave bread crumbs of power conceding bits of it here and there, but by and large? They aren’t gonna just give it up. Either the blood spilled must become so egregious as to awaken the conscious of the white man or the abuses must start slipping over into the white realm to matter (which it already has, there’s well-documented cases of egregious police abuses against white people, too).
On the journey to that time, please, for the love of God, stop using King as a mascot. It’s hollow bullshit.