Monday, January 16, 2012

Martin Luther King and the America of 2012

The older I get, the more shocked I am to remember how very young Martin Luther King was when he was killed. He was only 39. He was born the same year as my father, who is still around today, age 82.

If Martin Luther King could come back and visit America today, what would he think of our situation now?

Martin Luther King, at the end of his life, was working on the "Poor People's Campaign". He was in favor of the redistribution of wealth and a guaranteed minimum annual income for the poor, which would enable families to climb out of poverty. We've gone in the exact opposite direction from what he had in mind. In 2012, we have less economic mobility than Great Britain. If you're born poor in the United States, you will almost certainly remain poor for the rest of your life.

One of the first issues tackled by the civil rights movement was the desegregation of schools. Back then, Southern schools were segregated by law, and the black schools struggled with less funding. Black children who were really middle class, the children of ministers and prosperous farmers, were held back by being forced to attend low-quality schools.

When desegregation cracked open doors that had previously been slammed shut, black people with energy, talent, and ambition (many of them already in the top rung of black society) naturally rushed through those doors. But the unintended consequence was that they left behind their neighbors in poverty, whose situation has been steadily worsening.

Today, our public schools have been resegregated. We're newly segregated by college and professional-school attendance too. Today more than ever, our ruling class is the product of Ivy League schools whose exclusive admissions policies give an edge to the carefully-groomed children of the rich. Our Supreme Court is stocked only with graduates of Harvard or Yale Law schools; our last several presidents got degrees at Harvard or Yale. Our most recent non-Ivy president was Ronald Reagan!

What would Martin Luther King make of Barack Obama? I'm sure he would appreciate the symbolism of our first black President, and be amazed (as I was!) that this could be achieved as early as 2008. But I doubt that he'd be happy with Obama's accomplishments (or lack thereof.)

Obama, in spite of his pigment, is a natural member of the upper class, starting with his private school education (he never spent a day in an American public school). I've been reading the new biography of the Obamas by Jodi Kantor (I recommend it), and what strikes me most about Obama is how typical he is of upper-class careerists. He's all about climbing the ladder, which of course he's done spectacularly well. It should really not be a surprise that Obama perpetuated George Bush's tax cuts for millionaires; those millionaires are his friends, colleagues, and campaign donors.

Today's segregation is about economic class more than skin color, but it's just as destructive as the old segregation. And, just as in the days of Martin Luther King, American schools are part of the machinery that divides the haves from the have-nots.


  1. Slightly off topic, it's interesting to me to find how many famous black people of my generation or older are the children of ministers: for instance, Aretha Franklin, Nat King Cole, and Marian Wright Edelman. This is probably because the ministry was one of the few careers available for educated black men up through the mid 1960's.

  2. Glenn Greenwald has a column on this topic today -- definitely worth a read.