Martin Luther King in today’s America

In Blog, Highlights, History, Interviews, Politicsby Ronan BurtenshawLeave a Comment


In the final installment of our threepart interview series with Guardian journalist Gary Younge we explore the relevance of Martin Luther King’s politics to today’s America.


If you look at the prison statistics, the wealth statistics, the quality of life indicators it is clear that being black in America forty-five years after Martin Luther King’s death is still to be disadvantaged. What are some of the aspects underpinning institutional racism in the United States today?

Younge: Drug laws – that’s a big one. That puts huge, huge numbers of black men in particular in jail when they need not be. Once you’re in jail, particularly if it is a felony, you’re out of the economic system, which makes it much more likely you’ll end up back in jail. Then there’s an educational system which is rotten to the core and where, under neoliberal globalisation, a group of people are understood to be dispensable. They are mainly coloured brown. Not that there aren’t members of the white community for whom that is the case as well but race is a strong feature. If you live in Detroit there is no industry for you. The era of skilled or semi-skilled jobs that pay a decent wage in these areas has disappeared.

The gun laws are a problem too. Some other countries have America’s number of guns but they don’t have the same inequality. Where other states do, like South Africa, it is a disaster. The gun laws mean that there is a high rate of mortality among young black men. It’s all very well saying to somebody if you work hard at school you can get on. But what if your school is crap, you live in terrible conditions and you can’t go to college? What if there is only badly-paid, demoralising work out there for you to do and there’s a large number of people in your community going to jail? Often the only way you can see to make money is to hustle. But that not only means you’re damaging your community, it also almost guarantees you’re going to die young. But in the absence of other opportunities the notion that you might join a gang has a logic to it.

This struck me quite deeply at the beginning of the school term this year. The weather wasn’t great so I was driving my kid to school. There is a school at the top of my road. There were cops, firemen, people in bibs. It was the beginning of the school year and they had to set up this safe passageway. There were kids getting shot on the way to and from school. So at this primary school they had different collection points where parents could leave their kids and then walk almost a cordon sanitaire. I thought, ‘this is a modern, western country. This is a country that claims others should be emulating it.’ But five and six year old kids in the hometown of the President are being assisted to school by law enforcement authorities every day. Not because there is something specific going on, but because there is always something going on. And we don’t even live in a bad area! You’ve got to look at those kids on their first day of school and think what does life hold for you?

When I look at them I’m not thinking there goes the future President of America. I’m thinking there goes a child that is going to be deeply scarred by urban violence. This brings up – after the drug laws, the economy and the gun laws – mental health provision. The leading mental health services provider in America is the prison service. If jail is where you end up they will treat you as far as it is in their interest to contain you and then you come out and go back to prison again.

Photo by Jay Jacobs

Photo by Jay Jacobs

In your view, what is the contemporary relevance of the I Have a Dream speech? And if you were to choose one of MLK’s speeches to apply to the present conditions, which one would it be?

Younge: I think a lot of the speech still stands. He says “one hundred years later we are still not free”. He talks about the shackles of history and its enduring injustices. I interviewed Angela Davis once and she said “there’s a difference between freedom and the breaking of chains”. In order to have freedom you have to be equipped for freedom. America has never really done that. So long as equality of opportunity was only denied specifically on grounds of race it was abhorrent. But when it became just another way of being equal it was accepted – so the legacy of racism is denied. The bad cheque that Martin Luther King spoke about still has not been cashed. It is interesting that it isn’t remembered as the ‘bad cheque’ speech because if they did it would bring it up to date.

I’m not talking about reparations but of addressing the legacy of codified racism. Two hundred and fifty years of slavery then one hundred years of servitude under segregation – the shackles were only taken off fifty years ago. That was when they said you can go now. Of course hardly any went anywhere but it took more than three centuries of explicit racism to make it that bad. And today more insidious kinds of racism persist, as I’ve said. I think that makes ‘we’ve come here to cash’ urgent, ‘now is the time’. During the fiftieth anniversary celebration there was this cliché – we’ve come so far, we’ve got so far to go. I was like, ‘well then take us somewhere! You’ve got power, do something.’ Obama said that. He’s the President! He had been in power for five years. The discrepancy between black and white has grown. All of these issues we’re talking about have gotten worse since he’s been in power. So what was the use in him saying that? Who is going to do it if it isn’t going to be him? I actually like the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech because it’s utopian. It says this is not all there is, this is not all we can be.

But I think there are two that I would choose specifically for present conditions. The first is the Riverside (‘Beyond Vietnam’) speech because it speaks about American imperialism and it asks questions that I think still need to be answered. It is centred on Vietnam but he calls America “the greatest purveyor of military violence in the world today” and it still is. It is crucially important that we see America as a source of violence internationally. When it came to Syria Obama would talk about “upholding international norms” and the same day he would kill six people with a drone strike. They don’t respect international norms.

And then the ‘Where Do We Go from Here’ speech where he says we have to question the “capitalistic economy”, where he asks why there are forty million poor people in the richest country on earth, where he asks who owns the oil, the iron ore, why in a world that is two-thirds water do we have to pay water bills? Those questions, particularly in this period of austerity, remain pertinent.

You can find the first two parts of this interview series – on the background to the I Have a Dream speech and what Martin Luther King’s legacy means for the Obama presidency – on our website.

We also spoke to Gary in October about the racist panic surrounding the abduction of a Roma child by the Irish state. His book ‘The Speech’ is available in paperback here for under €10.

If you want to find out more check this interview Gary Younge did with We Are Many last year:

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