Wheeler: Redressing The Review

by Katie Wheeler | 2/11/14 6:44pm

In its most recent issue, The Dartmouth Review published history professor Russell Rickford’s speech at the 22nd Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Candlelight Vigil in full. He explains the ways in which King’s legacy — the legacy that mainstream American culture has embraced — serves to blind us from the structural racism that still plagues our society. Our annual honoring of King — rather, his sanitized, commercialized counterpart who never actually existed — is a means of self-congratulation on our nation’s supposed achievement of racial harmony.

In reality, King was a democratic socialist; he fought for collective bargaining rights for laborers and condemned American imperialism and militarism. Yet, as historian August Meier explained, it was King’s employment of the Christian symbols of love, nonresistance and redemption that was “reassuring to the mentality of white America.” Indeed, white America loves the King who dreamt of desegregation. It loves the version of his vision that could simply be realized through the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This King shows resistance, but not too much resistance, to the status quo and, more importantly, signifies the perceived end of the era of racism — something that white America needs to believe occurred to ease its own conscience.

It comes as no surprise that a writer at the Review lambasted the speech in an article about “Rickford’s musings.” The piece refused to acknowledge the distortion of the mainstream understanding of King’s legacy but also denied that this legacy could be employed as a sort of propaganda to obscure the failings of our current political and economic system. These failings, though they cannot all be properly examined here, include inequalities in health, housing, income, education and employment, especially in regard to persons of color. Yet the article’s insistence that “minorities are sometimes” — only sometimes — “still discriminated against” shows that the post-racial ideology that holidays like MLK Day are meant to instill in us is alive and well.

It also criticized Rickford’s portrayal of American democracy as a capitalist system ruled by the rich and corporations. The Survey of Consumer Finances, published by the Federal Reserve and the best provider of data for examining the distribution of wealth, shows us that 35 percent of our nation’s wealth is distributed to the top 1 percent of our nation. The next 9 percent alone possesses another 39 percent of the wealth. The article’s sole rebuttal is that the top 1 percent contributes 40 percent of overall federal tax revenue. Actually, it contributes 40 percent of the revenue generated by individual income taxes, which is predicted to constitute only 46 percent of the total federal tax revenue in 2014. Corporations, on average, just contribute 11 percent to this total. A country with such severely skewed allocations of wealth is, as Rickford points out, “radical” indeed.

The piece went on to — surprise, surprise — demonize affirmative action as an inversely racist system of quotas that reward the “unqualified” at the expense of the “hard-working,” and, in doing so, completely ignored the indispensible opportunities for advancement that such a system has provided for women and minorities. For instance, he overlooks the racial and economic segregation of the “new Jim Crow” that fuels inequality in educational opportunities and outcomes between school districts. Indeed, schools of concentrated poverty, which are often racially isolated, include less experienced and less qualified teachers, high levels of teacher turnover, less successful peer groups and inadequate facilities and learning materials. Affirmative action, among many other things, is crucial in compensating for the immense failings of our public school system.

Rejecting the ideology of MLK Day, as Rickford did, does not reject the man himself. It instead points to the harsh reality of contemporary racism and classism and the ways in which they intersect. This is a reality that we must acknowledge. It should be compelling not only for minorities and the lower and middle classes but also for the upper class that thrives off of their subjugation. For how can we boast of America as the leader of the free world when such maladies are staring us in the face? We must reject indifference and look to real, effective reform.