Victim Blaming and the legacy of MLK

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I am a white guy from the South. I want to be up front about this because of our racially charged society and what I’m about to say is controversial. Martin Luther King Jr, or for that matter any black leader, could not have succeeded in the Civil Rights movement without some white support. I don’t want to say this to demean the man. He was one of America’s greatest leaders, a true leader and visionary in every since of the word and endured various attacks from groups as diverse as the KKK to the F.B.I.

I was thinking about this because yesterday was Martin Luther King day and how it is a day not just celebrating him but the civil rights movement in general. I do not think such a movement could’ve existed without him but by so many accolades being put on him it creates a huge pressure among African-Americans that is frankly unrealistic. African Americans can’t end discrimination by Whites. Women can’t end discrimination by men. Whatever group being oppressed ultimately won’t and shouldn’t be responsible for ending its own oppression.

All too often when talking about MLK, Lyndon Baines Johnson is ignored, or at the very least marginalized.  In the aftermath of the assassination of JFK, he pushed extremely hard for civil rights and in some ways pushed harder than JFK. Both MLK and LBJ working together brought the civil rights movement into a new era. I mean imagine if a President had been hostile to civil rights how different the 1960’s would’ve been and how much worse it could have been.

When we as a nation focus on great leaders of an oppressed group who, against all odds, fought the man and won, we forget one of the great lessons of Dr. King. He was willing to find partners to help him. He understood that the black community couldn’t stop its own oppression but had to hold up a mirror to the rest of the nation. He needed to find people of conscience and conviction who he could work with. When we hold Martin Luther King up as someone who could simply make the evils of discrimination disappear with his own force of will, we inadvertently put all of the blame on communities that are in fact being oppressed for their oppression. After all, if all it took was a great African-American leader to lead the country then why did it take 100 years for the civil rights movement to even begin.

If you need another example look no further than Barack Obama. He was elected as a post-racial president. Someone who looked beyond the issues of just one community. He was also the first black President elected in our country’s history. He should have been the perfect end to the Civil Rights movement, not the President who allowed events like Ferguson and Baltimore to occur. Barack Obama didn’t cause racial tension, or heal it, he merely exposed it. In his case it was a total accident but in MLK’s case it was intentional. He forced White America to confront its own racism and either accept it or change.

When a group is being oppressed its primary duty is to expose that it is being oppressed. That’s it. It is on Whites to do the rest. Regardless of why Blacks are poorer, more likely to go to prison, or be killed, to expect the Black community to fix those issues is…frankly insane and self serving. To expect a group that still hasn’t shaken off the days of the Civil Rights movement to fully integrate themselves with the rest of the country and for White America to do nothing extra is totally absurd.

When affirmative action is talked about and Whites talk about how they are being punished for being White, my first reaction is “Okay, so if you think things are fair between Blacks and Whites you must think Blacks deserve their poorer standard of living. If that is the case then I am willing to bet you think Blacks are equal to Whites but because of some (insert vaguely racist insult here) they just stay poor.” My second reaction is “Well if you think Blacks are treated unequally but don’t want to be treated unfairly yourself how would you go about fixing that racial gap?”

I don’t expect an answer to that question, I am only trying to bring up a major point. Please, for the love of all that is Holy, stop blaming minorities for the problems that plague them. Instead actually offer solution, extend a hand to work with them with outstretched hands and treat these communities like they are Americans instead of another group that should be avoided at all cost. It is a symptom of victim blaming that is totally toxic in America. “Oh, if she didn’t want to be raped she should’ve worn different clothing” or “Oh, if he didn’t want to be shot by the cops he shouldn’t have run from them.” Wearing clothing is not an invitation to rape and if being shot just for running from the police is possible then I would avoid them at all costs too!

When we try to find that one great leader to fix all of our problems we totally shift any accountability from ourselves. When we blame the victims of violence, we put a weight on someone no one could ever bear.  As a people it is impossible to move forward, hoping for a great leader to fix everything, or for blaming the most disadvantaged groups in our society.  It is up to all of us to move forward, but Whites have the biggest burden, if for no other reason than we have profited from a nation built on discrimination.

 

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