You might not think you’re a racist, but you probably benefit from racism

Memories of Martin Luther King Jr.

The New York Times reporter Michael Powell goes in search of delegates who witnessed Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech.
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The New York Times reporter Michael Powell goes in search of delegates who witnessed Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech.

We observe Martin Luther King Day each year, on the third Monday of January, as a celebration of Dr. King’s remarkable life and the work to which he dedicated that life. As a pastor, scholar, orator, political organizer, and a movement builder, Dr. King had a profound impact in the U.S. and around the world — in his own time and in the five decades since his death.

In a career of just 14 years, Dr. King demonstrated repeatedly that his most profound contribution was as a moral philosopher. While he never doubted the potential for goodness in every individual, he saw the forces of racism, economic injustice, and violence that often seem to be hard-wired into the American political and economic structure as evidence of moral misdirection at a societal level. As early as 1954 in a sermon in Detroit, he said that “The great problem facing modern man is that the means by which we live have outdistanced the spiritual ends for which we live … If we are to go forward, if we are to make this a better world in which to live, we’ve got to go back. We’ve got to rediscover these precious values that we’ve left behind.”

Thirteen years later, he was still on message. In his April 1967 speech at the Riverside Church in New York, he said, “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

The struggle to which Dr. King dedicated his life would today be recognized as a struggle against systemic racism. Systemic racism exists when public policies, institutional practices, and cultural norms work in various ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. In the United States, systemic racism has been responsible for, among other things, Indian cultural genocide, slavery, Japanese internment camps, school segregation, real estate redlining and voter discrimination. Even when laws are passed to correct blatant examples of systemic racism, the long-term impacts are felt for generations. Today, the effects of systemic racism can be found in every aspect of society. For children and families of color, it affects where they live, the quality of education they receive, their access to healthy food, their income, their access to health care, their exposure to harmful environmental impacts, and their interactions with the criminal justice system.

Most thoughtful people today recognize that acts that intentionally express hate, prejudice, or bias, based on race are wrong. Yet, people who would never dream of engaging in individual racism may not realize that systemic racism is very much a factor in Whatcom County. More important, many people who would not see themselves as racist benefit directly from systemic racism. Today, we can each honor Dr. King’s legacy by educating ourselves about the ways systemic racism operates in Whatcom County. We can ask questions such as these:

1. How do employment rates among people of color and White people compare in Whatcom County?

2. What are the suspension and graduation rates among students of color in our local schools? How often are students of color subjected to racist bullying in area schools?

3. How often do people of color in Whatcom County get pulled over by police or receive extra scrutiny in stores?

4. What are the demographics of the desirable neighborhoods in Whatcom County?

5. Who has equitable access to affordable housing and health care in Whatcom County?

6. How do I personally benefit from systemic racism in Whatcom County?

You can learn more about the roots of racism in our community at the 21th annual Martin Luther King Conference sponsored by the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force on Saturday, Jan. 19, at the Syre Center at Whatcom Community College. Then plan to celebrate Dr. King’s life and legacy at the first annual Unity Ball at the Majestic from 8 p.m. to midnight that evening. You can learn more about these events at http://www.whrtf.org.

Victor Nolet is a member of the board of the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force and a professor in the Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University.