As we come to that time of year in which the American establishment honors the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it's always interesting to observe the doings of his putative heirs. This year, we see an especially interesting phenomenon: the viable presidential candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama, a man who, in Dr. King's glory days, would have been referred to as a "colored person."
There can be no doubt that Dr. King would be ecstatic at the fact that a black man is a plausible candidate for the White House and that he won the Democratic caucus in Iowa, a heavily white state. However, we wonder what he would make of some of the directions that the campaign as a whole has taken.
In the days of Dr. King, most of the black community stood behind the pursuit of civil rights. Some, such as Farrakhan's Black Muslims, viewed the cause as requiring a more aggressive approach than called for by Dr. King's creed of nonviolence. Others felt that change would come in due time by its natural course and did not need to be pushed at all. Those who felt this way simply stayed home, and didn't actively oppose Dr. King's marches in a public way. Once the civil rights struggle was won and black people began to vote in large numbers, they tended to vote as a block and to line up behind Democrats, particularly black Democrats.
It would appear that times have changed. There is now a clear division between the choices of nationally prominent black Americans. In general terms, black people who have raised themselves to high position in what you might call the American way - that is, by selling something people want to buy, or by running for office on an inclusive ticket - tend to support Mr. Obama. Oprah Winfrey is the most prominent example of this group, but she is by no means alone.
When we consider those who have reached their positions by political manipulation, shakedowns, and race-baiting, we find them supporting, not black Obama, but lily-white Hillary Clinton. In fact, some of their support is so obsequious as to be ludicrous: a former UN Ambassador argued, "Bill is every bit as black as Barack. He's probably gone with more black women than Barack." (Which may be true, but it is irrelevant except to remind us of Mr. Clinton's questionable character and marital infidelity.) Hillary herself has joked that she is in an "interracial marriage," referring to Bill's moniker as the "first black president."
We can only look at this and think, what the heck? As Hillary pointed out, it was not Dr. Martin Luther King who passed the Civil Rights act - he held no political office and had no official power, only influence. The legislative reforms at the national level were led by President Lyndon Johnson - another white guy. Shouldn't he be the first black president, if actual skin color is not required to hold the title?
There's another issue here. Dr. King had to work with the white establishment because that's who had power. Blacks were more or less barred from voting, much less high office, so it was essential for Dr. King to find white allies who wielded the clout necessary to make changes. Black leaders who advocated violence didn't think that the whites would ever share power voluntarily and tried to bring about a Black Power revolution. The imagination quails at pondering how that would have turned out.
The major voting laws were passed forty years ago. Today, there is absolutely nothing preventing blacks or any other ethnicity from running for or holding high office, either elected and appointed. There have been and are black judges on the Supreme Court; black commanding generals; black men and women as Secretary of State; black cabinet secretaries of other departments; and, of course, enough black members of the House of Representatives to populate an entire Congressional Black Caucus. Who needs a "first black president" who is actually white when you can have a "first black president" who really is black?
That's the bottom line as we contemplate the abandoned legacy of Dr. King. Mr. Obama is running for President of the United States. He happens to be black, and obviously the historic nature of his run affects the campaign; but he's not running because he's black. He's running because he darn well could be the very best man for the job. Sure, he wants a better life for black people, but only because he wants a better life for all Americans, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, Chinese and all other ethnics included, even whites.
You can oppose him for many reasons - his desire to nationalize healthcare, his mooted tax increases, his somewhat inconsistent foreign policy - but there is no reason to oppose him because of his race. As Sen. Joe Biden memorably put it, Sen. Obama is "articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."
He's all the things we look for in presidents; he is a fantastic orator, an electrifying retail politician, and has an ability to "connect" with an audience that is reminiscent of the legendary style of President John F. Kennedy. None of this has anything whatsoever to do with his color. In the main, he will in fact be judged exactly as Dr. King would have wished - he "will not be judged by the color of [his] skin but by the content of [his] character."
Having a black politician be judged by his character is exactly what the Jacksons and Sharptons of this country cannot stand. As we've discussed before, they have personal power and clout because they have convinced their followers that people are judged by their color; if the issue of race dies, so does their power. They would rather be beholden to an aging white politician, they would rather cling to the illusion that nothing has changed in the last half-century, than to take advantage of the rights Dr. King fought so hard to achieve.
It's particularly ironic that they would cast a woman in the role of the great black hope. The history of the civil rights struggle is certainly not one of collective effort by all marginalized groups; far from it. There was quite a bit of conflict between the early suffragists and the abolitionists of the 19th century as to whose cause could go first - it was considered impossible for society to swallow full rights for both women and blacks at the same time.
The earliest suffragists also tended to be abolitionists, but following the Civil War and the end of slavery, most of the newly-freed blacks didn't have fighting for women's rights very high up on their to-do list. So the suffragists went it alone, gaining the right to vote in 1920 via the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution; then the black community had their own fight in Dr. King's day. As Obama's pastor pointed out last week in a sermon:
Some argue that blacks should vote for Clinton "because her husband was good to us," he continued. "That's not true," he thundered. "He did the same thing to us that he did to Monica Lewinsky."
What would Dr. King think of today's goings on? He'd be ecstatic at the fact of Sen. Obama's viable candidacy; he'd be overjoyed at the way most people are judging him on his merits as testified by his victory in snow-white Iowa; but he'd be revolted by the Uncle Tom-like behavior of the "traditional" black leaders that falsely claim Dr. King's mantle.
Regardless of whether he wins the Democratic nomination or the Oval Office, we owe a debt of gratitude to Sen. Barack Obama. He has illustrated the moral bankruptcy of the old guard and he has demonstrated the wholesale elimination of white-on-black racism in American society.
There will always be racist fools and buffoons. If you look hard enough, you will always find an illiterate skinhead neo-Nazi spouting racist rot. But racism as properly defined - that is, systematic, institutional bias against individuals purely because of their skin color - will never again hold sway in the overwhelming majority of American minds and hearts.
We realize that a lot of black people feel that they've been held back by racism, but as we've pointed out earlier, some of what feels like racism could be stupidity. Fortunately, some black leaders are looking forward, not back.
Obsolete, backward-looking black leaders like Jackson or Sharpton cling to power by teaching their people to act like victims. Victims see racism where's there's mere stupidity, but more important, thinking like victims holds people back.
If black leaders manage to convince a black person that he can't succeed because the white establishment won't let him, he won't succeed. Mr. Obama's victory in Iowa shows that race no longer matters. It's time so-called "black" leaders stopped acting as if it still did.
As explored elsewhere, the war on poverty is over, and