King’s road map to the promised land

People will inevitably differ in their interpretations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy and in their assessments of “how far we’ve come.”

While neat lines are impossible to draw, there are those who view the apparent freedoms, opportunity and equality available in 2007 as proof of King’s legacy; as astounding progress on the journey toward a nation where people aren’t judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

As proof of this progress, they’ll point to their workplaces and schools, where relationships are cordial and diversity is valued, where opportunities are available to all and where achievement is limited only by attitude, preparation and effort. While they might not favor affirmative action programs, seeing such programs as misguided, as the antithesis of King’s legacy, they’ll nonetheless point to these programs as symbolic of a national commitment to diversity and to uplifting all of America’s peoples.

As evidence of a clear national intolerance for bigotry, they might point to hate crime legislation and to instances of community outrage at racism. Finally, they might look inward and be convinced that like themselves, most Americans don’t harbor racist attitudes and most are, in fact, galled by America’s race-relations history and remorseful about its legacy.

Then there are those who are more cautious in their optimism, people who may not necessarily disagree that there has been tremendous progress, but who still see King’s ideal as off in the distance.

If asked the reasons for their reticence, they might point to their workplaces and schools, where although relationships are civil, they’re nonetheless up against palpable prejudices and “birds-of-a-feather” networks that have the practical effect of shrinking opportunities, or depriving them of a fair shot at getting ahead. They might classify the waves of challenges to affirmative action and substantially similar programs as a systematic eroding of Brown v. Board of Education, as callous attacks on a framework that continues to be a viable method of uplifting a people still smarting from blows history dealt.

They might wonder if people, even those who are clearly empathetic, can truly understand how daunting it is for a people to stand up when for generations they were beaten down, when in the wake of slavery and its horrors, their ancestors nonetheless lived a slave-like existence, purposefully deprived of opportunities to be educated and to educate their children, to own property and to pass property to their children, to have a sense of worth and to pass that sense to their children. Finally, while they may realize it’s only so useful - in 2007 - to lament the past, they cringe when people, in word and deed, discount history’s effects.

As I assess our position on King’s dream continuum, although I’m undoubtedly optimistic, I’m inclined to be cautious in my optimism. Cautious because of my study of history and inability to conceive - however plausible it may be - that deep-seated toxins of prejudice can be purged in a generation; cautious as a consequence of being daily confronted with reflections or clear derivatives of this legacy, or being jolted by polls showing a horrifying one out of eight Americans consider themselves racists.

Notwithstanding our inevitably varied assessments, perhaps the lasting effect of King’s legacy is that regardless of where America stands on the dream continuum, King’s “content of character” dream continues to provide a timeless roadmap to the promised land -- a land that is not necessarily a color-blind society, but a society where people will never again be subjugated by the color of their skin.

Nigel Avilez is a Mercer Island resident and a media and intellectual property attorney at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP. He can be reached at nigelavilez@dwt.com.

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