We might just be easily startled by the thought of racism and how it has clung to the question of humanity over hundreds of years – no less when we are reminded of it again on the 30th Martin Luther King Jr Day – which takes place this year.
On 19th January, in America and all over the world, children will celebrate in schools, commemorating this remarkable historical figure and the contributionshe made to the American civil rights movement. Martin Luther King considered a figurehead of racial justice, and is a controversial legend who is much remembered for his persisting faith.
On August 28th, 1963, Martin Luther King gave his famous I Have a Dream speech. It was a declaration that marked the history of African-Americans and shook the nation’s foundations on the notion of equality. On that day, around 250,000 people came to stand before the Lincoln Memorial to listen to a declaration of their freedom and equality that echoed the Gettysberg Address, delivered 100 years previously by a similarly revered national leader.
As a black American himself, King was dedicated with undeviating faith to fighting for the civil rights of black people, and freeing them from social discrimination. He was jailed for his convictions and yet pursued his goal unyieldingly. He united the black community through churches and led his people to openly protest against government oppression and police brutality. All this he did in a pacifist manner. For some, he was a heroic and principled leader; yet for others, his peaceful, non-aggressive methods of protest showed him to be an undecided character exercising comparatively feeble leadership.
“I have a dream that one day.. we hold those truth to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”, King solemnly declared. His speech expressed his desperate agitations against the discrimination against African-Americans in American society: they were systematically oppressed by unjust – later found to be unconstitutional – legal systems. His speech was one of indignation and passion, which was and is seen as fighting back against social segregation. Segregation of black and white people on public transport was a common practice in the South, and was one that rendered African-Americans second-class citizens.
King called for a notion of awakening: “We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their adulthood and robbed of their dignity – and now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children!” It is a declaration that required freedom in both actions and minds.
The impact of King’s speech and actions was profound. The year after saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which brought about the end of public racial segregation of black and white people. Subsequently, the Voting Rights Act brought in measures to prevent racial discrimination in elections. Up until today, nations all over the world have chosen to advance King’s dream of racial equality, opening up many new homes for thousands of immigrants.
Does it then mean racism is at a thing of the past? Or is the bank of justice still labelled “insufficient funds” in modern world?
This speech, though admired by many today, is likewise woefully ignored by some who may believe that time has washed away the validity of its rightful claims. Needless to say, black minorities suffer from less physical brutality today than in the early 20th century, but exploitation and oppression carry on in different social forms. According to the US Justice Department, 80% of those death penalty in 2000 were black. In 2013, 13.4% of black people were unemployed, compared to just 6.7% of white people. The New York Times also reported that black minorities unfairly receive poorer health care in medical institutions, though they pay the same amount for medication. These figures show us that racism and racial inequality still remain fatal issues today.
But does racism merely exist in such straghtforward terms? Or is it more complex? Racism can be seen not only as a biological, but as a cultural issue. In the first instance, media representations of minorities tend to portray black communities as the baddies: as street guys and criminal gangsters. This is bad enough, but it then becomes more confrontational when racism occurs in real life. The Rodney King story tells us thatsuch real-life conditions still affect many African-Americans today: a black man being beaten by four Los Angeles police officers, who stated they feared that “they might have been attacked or harmed [by him]”. This accusation, which might have stemmed only from a groundless cultural assumption, manifests itself as a relentless present phenomenon of racial discrimination.
It is perhaps difficult to counter the issue of racism even in our ordinary lives, for example, when last year UEA union officials banned students wearing sombreros, who meant to celebrate the Mexican culture. The wearing of sombreros was accused of promoting a “racial stereotype” that risked offending Mexican students. As a result, wider concerns were raised around whether the distinction of a culture can or should be considered racially offensive.
The celebration of Martin Luther King Day is therefore a vital reminder of how we should treat people who are racially and culturally different from ourselves. Overall, though racism and varied racial prejudices might always exist in varied forms, the important thing to remember is – as most of us have been taught since childhood – not to judge someone by their appearance, social or cultural background, or even to make unconscious assumptions based on these, before getting to know them as individuals, We must not judge people on the “colour of their skin” but on the “content of their characters”. Then we might be able to face the racial issues more honestly.