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This is What Is Still Holding Us Back from the Creation of a Fair Society

By the time Martin Luther King Jr. took the podium at the Unitarian Universalist Assembly in Hollywood, Florida on 18 May 1966, he had been tried and tested through a dozen tumultuous years.  Since becoming a pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in September 1954 and successfully leading a non-violent campaign to end segregated busing in Montgomery, Alabama two years later, King had been received by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India, stabbed by a mentally ill, middle-aged woman while autographing copies of his book Stride Toward Freedom in Harlem, New York, arrested in Atlanta and Albany, Georgia, invited to discuss racial matters with two American presidents (Eisenhower and Kennedy), punched by a member of the American Nazi Party, honored to deliver the pre-eminent speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (28 August 1963), declared “Man of the Year” by TIME magazine, and labelled “the most notorious liar in the country” by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. 

Despite years of turmoil and hardship, King was still standing – and standing his ground.

Nearly half a year after denouncing America’s war in Vietnam in August 1965, he and his wife Coretta relocated to Chicago to wage a struggle against housing discrimination in one of the most segregated cities in the country.  In his lecture “Don’t Sleep Through The Revolution” to the Floridian congregation, King crafted a masterful account of the roots of racial inequality within the longer arc of history – a lecture that merits reconsideration in twenty-first century America. 

Subsequent to announcing “The idea whose time has come today is the idea of freedom and human dignity,” the embattled Civil Rights leader bluntly told his audience “We must live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.”  In an unexpected, esoteric turn, he then offered a brief comment on the relationship between racism and anthropology.  Despite its nearly wholesale rejection by scholars, the idea of “superior and inferior races,” according to King, still lingered and continued to detrimentally impact the lives of non-whites. 

Beyond racial slurs and acts of racial hatred, King had identified the crux of America’s racial divide. For most European Americans until the early twentieth century, racial thought was right – not wrong. According to the leading intellectuals of the day, humanity was divided into “races” whose development could be empirically measured.  At the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Samuel Morton, who received his medical degree from the University of Edinburgh – the academic home Scottish moral philosopher and economist Adam Smith, examined human skulls from various parts of the world to determine the cranial capacity of the various “races.” In a major study published in 1839, Morton concluded that the descendants of Europe and Africa were at polar opposites on a scale of racial hierarchy.  Whites and blacks were deemed superior and inferior respectively.  As for Native Americans, the capability of their “race” was ranked in the middle.    

Several years later, a French man-of-letters, Arthur de Gobineau, bolstered the case for racial hierarchy with the publication of An Essay on the Inequality of Human Races (1853-1855).  One only need to glance at two chapter titles to gauge his thesis: “Racial Inequality Is Not The Result Of Institutions (Chapter V) and “Racial Differences Are Permanent” (Chapter XI).  In postulating “The idea of original, clear-cut, and permanent inequality among the different races is one of the oldest and most widely held opinions in the world,” Gobineau was echoing the social and intellectual currents of his era.  Similar to Morton, he judged white Europeans the superior race. 

Perhaps no one gave more ideological credence to black “inferiority” and equated blackness with criminality in the United States than Frederick Ludwig Hoffman (1865-1946).  In the same year as the “separate but equal” ruling by the Supreme Court in Plessy v Ferguson (1896), Hoffman published Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro.  In the estimation of historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad – an expert on race in the Progressive Era, his monograph was “the most influential race and crime study of the first half of the twentieth century.” Sponsored and supported by both academics (i.e. F.S. Kinder of Cornell University), a department in the U.S. government, and the Prudential Life Insurance Company, Hoffman synthesized anthropological research and utilized statistics to “prove” that blacks were not only deficient in terms of character and biology but also sexually licentious, disease-prone, educationally incorrigible, and predisposed to committing crimes. 

Although the concepts of racial hierarchy and black “inferiority” had been refuted in academic circles for two generations and denounced by a number of prominent white leaders – including Minneapolis Mayor and future Vice President Hubert Humphrey at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, most (if not all) African Americans well-understood that the racism of yesteryear had not entirely disappeared.  Consequently, King informed his listeners that “Today’s [racist] arguments are generally placed on more subtle cultural grounds, for instance: ‘the Negro is not culturally ready for integration…And another ‘The Negro is a criminal; you see he has the highest crime rate in any city.’” Rather than innate racial inferiority, the Civil Rights leader offered another explanation: “Poverty, ignorance, economic deprivation, [and] social isolation breed crime in any racial group.”  Then, he began to outline the social costs of racism in the Windy City twenty years after the death of Frederick Hoffman.

After noting the separate and unequal nature of the public school system, King cited two revealing numbers.  Half of black Chicagoans “[lived] in deteriorated housing conditions,” and their unemployment rate was six times higher than that of white residents.  Indeed, Chicago was only one of a countless number of American cities and towns mired in racial inequality.

In a remarkable peroration that would be partially quoted by President Obama in his Second Inaugural Address (20 January 2013), King proclaimed “And we can sing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ because somehow we know that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” and boldly pronounced that “We will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood, and speed up that day when all of God’s children all over the nation and the world will be able to walk the earth as brothers and sisters.” For the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, freedom and equality for each and every human being constituted the hope and promise of America.

“What happens to a dream deferred?  Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”  These opening lines, which were rendered by renowned African American poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967) in his poem Harlem (1951), still define the broken ambitions of a significant portion of black and Latino communities across the nation.  Today in Chicago, one out of three African Americans lives in poverty and nearly fifty percent young black men (age 20-24) neither attend school nor have a job.  Predictably, the environment of hopelessness and despair has created another class of criminals rather than a new generation of doctors, teachers, and entrepreneurs – proving, once again, King’s observation that “Poverty, ignorance, economic deprivation, [and] social isolation breed crime in any racial group.”

Since 2012, there have been more than 6,000 shootings in Chicago – mostly in poor, black areas. In their reporting, news anchors and media commentators rarely mention the primary cause of crime in black neighborhoods – widespread and systematic racial exclusion – and instead often discuss “black-on-black violence” - as if violence between African Americans constitutes a separate and distinct phenomenon from whites and other ethnic groups. 

In Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Ferguson, Missouri, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Washington, DC, and in many places in between, black and Latino lives matter, but shamefully, they do not matter as much as white lives.  This fact is borne out in gaping disparities of income, education, housing, and job opportunities, frequent cases of discriminatory policing, and a criminal justice system that often over-prosecutes non-white offenders. 

Despite five decades of considerable progress, the ghosts of Samuel Morton, Arthur de Gobineau, and Frederick Hoffman continue to influence American society in its language, policies, and relative indifference to the sordid effects of racism.  It is time for all Americans to wake up to the Revolution: “All men [and women] are created equal” and all lives must matter equally.