Let’s not forget MLK’s message of unity
Editors note: This op-ed by FAIR Advisor Monica Harris was published yesterday in the Billings Gazette, the largest newspaper in the state of Montana.
When I was a kid, Martin Luther King Jr.’s name and image were ubiquitous — on schools and boulevards, in hospitals and museums, on postage stamps and t-shirts. It was impossible to talk about the fight for racial equality without invoking his legacy.
And today? Not so much. When police brutality, callous remarks or insensitive behavior dominate the news cycle, we rarely hear King’s message of unity and harmony; instead, we’re besieged by anger and vitriol. Our attempts to advance social justice don’t bring us together; they drive us apart.
So how did we get to this place? Why, after decades of progress, do we find ourselves more divided than ever on race? I think it’s because we’ve forgotten one of the most important lessons that King taught us: achieving equality relies not only on our ability to see and appreciate our differences, but also our willingness to look beyond them.
I came of age in an America that seems unimaginable now. The prep school I attended held its graduation party at a private club that didn’t grant membership to black, Latino, Jewish, or Asian people; kids of color like me received special “dispensation” for the event. This happened in southern California in 1984.
After graduating from Harvard Law School and landing my first gig as an entertainment lawyer at Walt Disney Studios, I wasn’t just the only black lawyer in my department; I was one of only three black executives on the entire lot.
Thankfully, my 13-year old biracial son is growing up in an America that looks a lot different. The private school I graduated from is teeming with diverse students and staff. Executives of color at Disney are no longer the rare exception but reflect a noticeable and growing trend of greater representation in the entertainment industry.
Yet it’s hard to imagine how this progress would have been possible if King had set us on the path we find ourselves now, obsessed with and consumed by our differences. Sixty years ago, when racism was not just systemic but also legal, King dreamed that one day his children would not “be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
It’s a dream that has yet to fully manifest.
Although we’ve gone a long way towards eliminating overt discrimination, implicit bias and a legacy of institutional racism have left indelible scars. The rate of home ownership for black Americans has remained virtually unchanged in 50 years, the percentage of incarcerated black males has nearly tripled during that time, and we’re still vastly underrepresented at the country’s top colleges and universities.
But King had another dream we don’t talk about as much. He hoped that one day “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners [would] be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” He understood that racial equality should be built on a foundation of racial harmony, and we can only find harmony when we come together.
So much of our discourse today is predicated on highlighting our differences: the privileges we do or don’t have; the experiences we can or can’t relate to; the lifestyles we do or don’t share.
If King were alive, I think he would remind us that sitting at the table of brotherhood doesn’t just mean making space for people who don’t look like us or share our life experiences. It doesn’t mean separating ourselves by breaking into affinity groups. Sitting together means appreciating our unique differences while embracing what we have in common and celebrating our shared humanity.
White Americans elected the first black president — twice — because he embodied hope and change that people of all colors could relate and aspire to. I became senior vice president at a television network because I forged meaningful personal relationships with white colleagues who were instrumental in helping me advance my career.
I found my life partner, a white woman, because we bonded over our shared values, priorities, and worldview, all of which had little to do with our skin color. And when we left California to start a new life in Montana, we built friendships with neighbors who don’t always share our perspective because we all craved the simplicity of living in natural beauty.
My unique personal experience has heightened my awareness of the need to find common ground in these challenging times. Without question, the Black Lives Matter movement and race essentialism have done the hard work of forcing America to reckon with inequities and injustices that have gone unaddressed for too long. But these efforts shouldn’t obscure the essence of King’s message: we’re stronger together when we transcend our differences. As we honor King today, let’s remember that the quest for racial equality should be a pro-human mission that unites all of us.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism or its employees.
In keeping with our mission to promote a common culture of fairness, understanding, and humanity, we are committed to including a diversity of voices and encouraging compassionate and good-faith discourse.
We are actively seeking other perspectives on this topic and others. If you’d like to join the conversation, please send drafts to email@example.com.
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