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Martin Luther King’s Giant Triplets of Injustice

Roundup
tags: racism, inequality, Martin Luther King Jr., militarism



Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, Americans are finally -- or is it once again? -- confronting the racism that afflicts this country and extends into just about every corner of our national life. Something fundamental just might be happening.

Yet to state the obvious, we’ve been here before. Mass protests in response to racial inequality and discrimination, including police brutality, have been anything but unknown in the United States. Much the same can be said of riots targeting black Americans, fomented and exploited by white racists, often actively or passively abetted by local law enforcement officials. If Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, formerly known as H. Rap Brown, was correct in calling violence “as American as cherry pie,” then race-related urban unrest is the apple-filled equivalent. 

The optimists among us believe that “this time is different.” I hope events will prove them right. Yet recalling expectations that Barack Obama’s election in 2008 signaled the dawn of a “post-racial America,” I see no reason to expect it to be so. A yawning gap, I fear, separates hope from reality.

Let me suggest, however, that the nation’s current preoccupation with race, as honorable and necessary as it may be, falls well short of adequately responding to the situation confronting Americans as they enter the third decade of the twenty-first century. Racism is a massive problem, but hardly our only one. Indeed, as Martin Luther King sought to remind us many years ago, there are at least two others of comparable magnitude.

In April 1967, at New York City’s Riverside Church, Dr. King delivered a sermon that offered a profound diagnosis of the illnesses afflicting the nation. His analysis remains as timely today as it was then, perhaps more so.

Americans remember King primarily as a great civil rights leader and indeed he was that. In his Riverside Church address, however, he turned to matters that went far beyond race. In an immediate sense, his focus was the ongoing Vietnam War, which he denounced as “madness” that “must cease.” Yet King also used the occasion to summon the nation to “undergo a radical revolution of values” that would transform the United States “from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.” Only through such a revolution, he declared, would we be able to overcome “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.”

The challenge confronting Americans was to dismantle what King referred to as the “edifice” that produced and sustained each of those giant triplets. Today’s protesters, crusading journalists, and engaged intellectuals make no bones about their determination to eliminate the first of those giant triplets. Yet they generally treat the other two as, at best, mere afterthoughts, while the edifice itself, resting on a perverse understanding of freedom, goes almost entirely ignored.

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