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June 15, 2021 MEMBER OP-ED

Racism is Still

Angela J. Scott, 2020-21 Section Chair

Racism Is Still that Hound of Hell Which Dogs the Tracks of Our Civilization

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Ever since the birth of our nation, White America has had a schizophrenic personality on the question of race. She has been torn between selves. A self in which she proudly profess[es] the great principles of democracy and a self in which she madly practices the antithesis of democracy.

This tragic duality has produced a strange indecisiveness, an ambivalence toward the Negro.  Causing America to take a step backwards simultaneously with every step forward on the question of racial justice. To be at once attracted to the negro and repelled by him. To love and to hate him.  There has never been a solid unified and determined thrust to make justice a reality for Afro Americans. The step backwards has a new name today. It is called the white backlash. But the white backlash is nothing new. It is the surfacing of old prejudices, hostilities and ambivalence that has always been there. It was caused neither by the cry of Black Power nor by the unfortunate recent wave of riots of our cities. The white backlash of today is rooted in the same problem that has characterized America ever since the black man landed in chains on the shores of this nation.

This does not imply that all white Americans are racisbt. Far from it. Many white people have, through a deep moral compulsion, fought long and hard for racial justice. Nor does it mean that America has made no progress in her attempt to cure the body politic of the disease of racism. Or that the dogma of racism has not been considerably modified in recent years. However, for the good of America, it is necessary to refute the idea that the dominant ideology in our country even today is freedom and equality, while racism is just the occasional departure from the norm on the part of a few bigoted extremists.

Racism can well be that corrosive evil that will bring down the curtain on western civilization. Arnold Toynbee has said that some twenty-six civilizations have risen upon the face of the earth—almost all of them have descended into the junk heap of destruction.  The decline and fall of these civilizations, according to Toynbee, was not caused by external invasion but by internal decay. They failed to respond creatively to the challenges impingent upon them.

If America does not respond creatively to the challenge to banish racism, some future historian will have to say that a great civilization died because it lacked the soul and commitment to make justice a reality for all men.”

These words professed in 1967 by Dr. Martin Luther King during his speech titled, “[t]he Three Evils of Society,” are still relevant today because the issue of racism in this country has never been fully acknowledged, properly confronted, or appropriately rectified. Without these steps, racism is unlikely to end. Yet despite this reality, there are some who are still uncomfortable with learning and conversing about racism and its ugly truths. In fact, efforts to create open dialogue about the history of racism continue to get pushed aside, minimized, or dismissed as divisive and contrary to the achievement of unity. 

If Dr. King were here today, I think he would discourage us from hiding the weed of racism by burying those roots again and again. Maybe he would deliver another speech that effectively sounds the alarm on the modern-day narrative that allows racism to thrive—the suggestion that learning about it and talking about it too much encourages division within our nation.  Consistent with that narrative, perhaps Dr. King would find it upsetting to know that many Americans just learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre that resulted in the murder of hundreds of Black people, destroyed an entire community, and deprived the descendants of Black business owners of the generational wealth to which they were entitled. He may note that acknowledgment and truth are basic first steps toward eliminating modern-day hate and inequality. He also might point out when racism and hate are ignored and disregarded, that constitutes a form of acceptance. 

The acceptance of racism without consequence does not make it go away, it makes it inevitably worse.  Dr. King might raise the fact that Asian people are being blamed for the COVID-19 pandemic and have been victims of an unprecedented rise in hate crimes. He may even state the brutal murder of the Muslim family in Canada, as tragic as it was, did not come as a surprise to Muslim Americans, as they have been living with the reality of unchecked Islamophobia since 9/11. Our acceptance and indifference toward racism have been normalized here. Dr. King would likely try to remind those who think that things cannot get worse, that there is currently an increase in Anti-Semitism and hate crimes against Jewish Americans, since the most recent conflict in the Middle East. Hate and racism seem to be tolerable here and Dr. King would not allow us to accept that.

I can’t imagine what Dr. King might say if he were alive on January 6 to witness the horrific Confederate battle flag flying in our Capitol’s rotunda, while a group of violent insurrectionists launched a deadly terrorist attack on our country. Had they prevented the certification of our free and fair election results, which was their collective intent, it may have marked the destruction of our democracy.  But six months later with no meaningful consequence to prevent it from happening again, people are still questioning and challenging the results of a democratically decided election, consistent with the objectives of the terrorists who attacked our country on January 6.  I think Dr. King would be outraged.

If we were blessed enough to hear a speech from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today, he might quote George Santayana in an effort to remind us that those who do not learn and understand the past are destined to repeat it.  He probably would describe the similarities between the Jim Crow voter disenfranchisement laws and policies of the past to the present day coordinated efforts of state and local legislators who are racing to pass voting restrictions all over the country. These laws and restrictions will limit or prevent mostly racial and ethnic minorities, and other marginalized communities, from exercising their right to vote. We are going backwards and have been since the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 529 (2013).  

If Americans do not know, understand or acknowledge the history of racism in this country, we are destined to repeat it.  f Dr. King were still here, he might beg us, especially those of us with law degrees, to appreciate the years of progress currently at risk.  He may well implore us to understand that although our democracy was not toppled on January 6, if we do not act soon, we could very well be witnessing its slow and graceful fall.

“Racism is still the hound of hell which dogs the tracks of our civilization.” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Our work to achieve the promises of democracy is still far from over, and it is directly tethered to our commitment to advancing the civil rights and human rights of all people. If Dr. King were still here, his words might be convincing enough to inspire us to do more. 

Dr. King is no longer here, but fortunately still with us are impactful individuals who were right alongside him, playing a pivotal role in advancing civil rights. On August 6, 2021, the ABA Civil Rights and Social Justice Section will have the opportunity to honor one of these great men. We will virtually present the 2021 CRSJ Thurgood Marshall Award to Dr. Clarence B. Jones, attorney and speechwriter to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Those who are entrenched in the civil rights community and know our history are already familiar with Dr. Jones’s contributions. Others will learn and be inspired by the work of this great man. In honor of the hard-fought efforts and legacy of this unsung civil rights hero, numerous esteemed guests will participate in the Thurgood Marshall Award Celebration including: Thurgood Marshall, Jr., Larry S. Gibson, Ambassador Andrew Young, Jonathan Greenberg, David Cole, Marie Sylla-Dixon, Ronny Chieng, Lateefah Simon, and more. While we are not at liberty to say, we are thrilled that a prominent, “surprise” special guest will provide remarks as well.  We hope you will join us

Angela J. Scott, 2020-21 Section Chair, ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice

Angela J. Scott is the 2020-21 Chair of the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice and past member of the ABA Commission on Disability Rights. The views expressed in this article are her opinions. She has written this column in her personal capacity and not on behalf of her employer, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, or any component of the U.S. government.