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The Impossible Dream
January 24, 2002
by Tommy Ates

What should be the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King? That question struck me, as I watched how Americans celebrated, congratulated - yet denigrated his memory, on and off the media dial last weekend. With the media doing laps around Dr. King's views on war in wartime, the question lingers, what are we talking about when we talk about 'progress'?

Looking at the current state of race as an issue in America, people must remember that examining racial attitudes is always more dangerous - and sobering - than examining race relations at face value. Racial attitudes are often related in the mass media. African-Americans still have the 'cool' factor for their music and fashion sense; but what value do non-blacks place on these 'African' signifiers?

Instead of wondering where Africans-Americans are today in the career rat-race, perhaps we should delve into inter-personal relationships - how minorities and whites interact on a day-to-day basis. Does the love-hate complex of black vs. white still exist and if so, how does it manifest itself? Will whites ever not think of blacks as suspicious, temperamental, and stupid? Will blacks ever not wonder whether whites can be really "down," snotty, or not racist?

To be truthful, in trying to write this column, I feel as though I am writing questions and answers to attitudes which I don't have. I am African-American; since I am African-American, I don't have a clear sense of how other nationalities feel; but I can note the inconsistencies.

Increasingly I feel that I am being used - my likeness being used as a corporate knockoff of how a man should be, but I am nothing like these images. I am not the pimp. I am not the sports player and I don't have the "bling, bling." The vision of black men that corporate America has for the teenage and young adults may be good for business, but bad for self-worth. Since the civil rights movement, the super-masculine black male has been a perennial image of sexual magic and primal urges.

The black female has turned from "Mamie" to the affronting "black bitch" that white men can't handle. Both of these stereotypes lead me to believe that being strong and black in the eyes of whites continues to be a problem.

In the '90s, those blacks able to get media attention often were not the progressive activists, but conservative pundits, seen as the bellwether of how blacks could be if they only 'assimilated.' But how can one assimilate when inequalities of poverty and economic opportunities are so stark? I can only imagine the decisions some blacks in power must make in situations where raising a concern about the fate of the worker masses (many of whom are your own) which may jeopardize your own position as a good executive "sticking to the bottom line." No, we cannot look at corporate America to be our savior or measuring stick upon which to grade how far we've come.

When it comes to the mass media, where is there room to argue? No one can deny that blacks and minorities sing a bad (if not distorted) rap. Even with crime statistics showing that drug usage is a suburban phenomenon, the local news continues to load its newscasts with gritty portraits of urban blight as if poor, black ghetto were the source of urban decay rather than the "white flight" processes that created the situation to begin with.

Likewise, the national scope of news is skewed towards the 1st and 2nd world conflicts (i.e., the continuing Israeli-Palestinian stalemate), while thousands continue to die in Congo and in civil war in the Sudan and Sierra Leone (both of whom just drafted cease-fires), stories that affect millions of people and the course of nations, but they do not get attention because they don't matter to advertisers, a part of the barely acknowledged 85% of world consumers.

January 21st should be the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, instead for many Americans, it's still a workday. How are we to celebrate and contemplate King's memory when people still have to go about their daily routine? The media covering the President and First Lady's visit with the King family has become a ritual in which many people don't pay attention. To end the boredom, why don't they ever let regular white people tell what they think MLK day is? After all, the majority white populace were the ones who needed convincing!

In preserving Dr. King's legacy, let us not look outside ourselves, but take a good look within the mind, the body politic, and throughout the capitalist system which places value on life and limb as well as product and market share, a business system often based solely on a stock quote, advertising, and world of mouth.

We need more leaders like Dr. King, resistant to the current political system; but unfortunately, even he is busy working (posthumously) for Alcatel.

Tommy Ates loves the left because the left is always right! He wants to help the underdog become the Top Dog...

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