This MLK Day, as many of us join the national call to #ReclaimMLK, we draw on Dr. King’s human rights legacy that was typified by his campaigns for racial and economic justice. The current culture of police violence is symptomatic of a deeper malaise of racial and economic injustice that black and brown people face every day. In the history of our country, we have had several opportunities to address racial injustice but we have often been offered piecemeal, limited and compromised solutions. So on this day, we call on the political leaders from the president on down to seize the moment, as President Johnson did following Selma, to lead on a bold national strategy to address contemporary structural racism in the United States once and for all.It is no secret that the United States is currently confronted with a serious internal crisis – growing inequality, poverty and divisions of all kinds. Despite the incredible victories of the civil rights movement, black and brown communities continue to face structural barriers to enjoying racial and economic equality. In too many of those communities, opportunity never knocks.
An international body of United Nations human rights experts recently reviewed the United States on its racial justice record. It found that in almost every sphere of life, people of color face obstacles to the enjoyment of human rights leading to troubling disparities in almost every sphere of life. They raised concerns about policing, gender based violence, mass incarceration, juvenile life without parole, health, education, employment, immigration, and indigenous rights, among others. These disparities may not be the intention of the policies and practices that produce them, but they are certainly the outcome. An outcome that disproportionately impacts black and brown communities regularly.
Added to this is what appears to be the systematic criminalization of people of color and poor people. For example in schools, black children as young as four years old experience harsher discipline that oft times leads to engagement with the criminal justice system. Across every age group, black students are three times more likely than white students to be suspended, and research has shown that these are often for the same infractions. On the streets and even sometimes at home, black people are too often seen as suspicious by civilians and law enforcement alike and treated more harshly by the criminal justice system at every step in the process. The practice of Stop and Frisk exemplifies that this treatment is not only discriminatory but also unproductive and wasteful.It is destructive to the fabric of any society when the very systems set up to uphold and protect justice are guilty of subverting it. The values that we talk about as important in democratic societies seem to disappear when it comes to the rights of people of color. These double standards are seen in our communities and they are seen all over the world. It is an odd contradiction that we promote human rights abroad, and continue to neglect accountability for human rights at home. Those that choose to ignore the obvious social inequalities and blame the victims of structural racism will find that they are on the wrong side of history.
Dr. King has left a legacy that says that when we say that black lives matter, we are indeed saying all lives matter. Just like in Memphis when black sanitation workers carried signs saying “I am a man,” they were really saying “I am a human being” who has rights that should be respected like everyone else. We hope the president will be prepared to take bold action and when it comes to racial justice and say “Yes We Can.” When it comes to the adoption of a National Plan of Action for Racial Justice, he should say “Yes We Can.” When it comes to pursuing a complete vision for human rights – a strategy designed to remove all structural barriers to equality, he should say “Yes We Can.”
Dr. King directed us to be bold and uncompromising in our pursuit of human rights for all. Let’s reclaim his legacy with calls that go beyond volunteerism or nostalgia for powerful speeches. Let’s reclaim his legacy with a firm commitment to respect and protect human rights for everyone.