As the United States experiences its second Martin Luther King Jr. Day to occur with Iraq under American occupation, it’s an opportune moment to remember King as a border crosser who refused to restrict his focus to just one city or one nation or to just one or two social and political problems. King thought that difficulties in Vietnam and the Philippines were inseparably linked to difficulties in Chicago and Washington D.C. and Montgomery, Alabama. And in a remarkable essay titled “A Testament of Hope,” which was published after his death, he wrote that “the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”
Some in the civil rights movement used to ask King why he seemed to complicate the civil rights cause by speaking out against the Vietnam War. As King explained in a televised public forum in the summer of 1967, “I was a clergyman before I was a civil rights leader, and when I was ordained, I accepted that as a commission to constantly and forever bring the ethical insights of our Judeo-Christian heritage to bear on the social evils of our day. War is one of the major evils facing mankind. It would be foolhardy to work for integrated schools or integrated lunch counters and not to be concerned about the survival of the world in which to be integrated. I have worked too long and too hard to get rid of segregation in public accommodations to turn back to the point of segregating my moral concern. Justice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And wherever I see injustice, I’m going to take a stand against it whether it’s in Mississippi or whether it’s in Vietnam.”
If you read King’s essential writings and speeches in 1967 and ‘68, you see him repeatedly making strong connections between racism and poverty at home and war and empire abroad. He talked and wrote about the fact that many young black Americans were at the front of the imperial killing lines in Vietnam because their segregated poverty was so high and their educational qualifications and job prospects so low that service in the relatively desegregated military looked like a step up to them. He noted that America’s criminal decision to pour tens of millions of dollars into the crucifixion of Southeast Asia was undercutting its ability to deliver on the promissory note of social justice that it had started to write with the all-too-limited and short-lived “War on Poverty.”
King observed how economic misery drove many poor whites as well as blacks into the clutches of the military. He also talked about how the American government’s role as what he called “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” was undermining his ability to argue effectively for nonviolent resistance to inequality and racism in the United States.
In a famous 1967 speech he gave to Clergy and Laity Concerned at the Riverside Church in New York City, King noted the savage absurdity at the heart of America’s claim to possess the ability to unify, liberate and democratize other nations. The self-appointed imperial savior Uncle Sam, King felt, was too deeply scarred by authoritarian inequalities and brutal class and race apartheid at home, to deliver on that claim. The war, King observed, was “taking black young men who have been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they have not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. We have been repeatedly faced,” King intoned, “with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them in the same schools. We watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize they would never live on the same block in Detroit.” “I could not be silent,” King said, “in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”
As an African-American doorman from Chicago’s West Side asked me in the spring of 2003, as the US government launched it’s so-called “Operation Iraqi Freedom”: “how you gonna export something you ain’t got at home?”
Racism, economic exploitation, war: “the triple evils that are interrelated.” How true that is today. As of 11:15 pm on December 21st, 2004, the National Priorities Project (NPP) reported, the George No-Child-Left-Untested Bush administration’s illegal, immoral, and imperial war of choice in Iraq had cost more than $151 billion. With that same sum of money, the NPP calculated, the United States could have: enrolled 20,037,391 US children in Head Start for one year; provided health insurance for one year to 90,588,264 children; built 1,362,157 public housing units; and hired 2,621,749 additional public school teachers for one year.
In Illinois, where young black girls and boys in neighborhoods like Englewood (on Chicago’s South Side) and North Lawndale (on the city’s West Side) attend classes too big to permit individual attention to children, the state’s share of the war’s cost could have paid for the building of 772 new elementary schools. The city of Chicago’s share could have paid for the hiring of 27,284 additional teachers for one year.
The military today eats up 29 cents of every federal tax dollar, compared to just 4 cents for education. At the same time, the total costs of the Bush administration’s harshly regressive tax cuts reached $297 billion by 2004, equivalent to 2.6 percent of the national Gross Domestic Product. These cuts put government revenues at their lowest level as a share of the economy since 1950 and contribute to the dramatic shift from large projected budget surpluses to deficits “as far as the eye can see,” the mainstream Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) reports.
By CBPP’s calculations, just 8.9 percent of Bush’s “middle-class tax-cuts” actually went to the middle 20 percent of American income earning households. The wealthiest 1 percent were granted nearly a quarter (24 percent) of the great reduction in what the nation’s private citizens are asked to pay for the vital business of the public sector. The opulent minority in the top 1 percent has received an average tax reduction of $34,992. Super-opulent millionaire households, equivalent to just 0.2 percent of all U.S. households, have received 19.3 percent of the tax cuts so far, garnering an average tax reduction of $123,592 from a president who refers to the very disproportionately white privileged few as “my base.”
The average beginning teacher salary in Illinois, by the way, is $34,522, just $470 less than the average tax cut enjoyed so far by the top 1 percent in what was already the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation long before Bush came into office.
I have just finished a rather large and painstaking report on the persistence of deep racial inequalities and even deeper racist social and institutional policies and practices in and around my home city of Chicago: “Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy and the State of Black Chicago” (to be released in March, 2004). I’d like to tell you that harsh racial inequalities and racially disparate -- institutionally racist -- policies and practices are unique to the Chicago area but the truth of course is that the same inequalities, processes, and structures are deeply entrenched across the nation, which seems dedicated at all levels to the notion that race and racism are no longer relevant, or fit matters for public discussion and remedy. Meanwhile racial inequalities and racist policies and practices are deepening as America inflicts a murderous, illegal, dangerous, and provocative occupation in the heart of the Arab world, an occupation that feeds on and reinforces racism, poverty, and economic exploitation at home and abroad.
I am struck in this painful context by the profound living relevance of King’s comments in “A Testament of Hope.” In that remarkable, sadly posthumous essay, King criticized America’s “inability to arrange an order of priorities that promises solutions that are decent and just” as it fought “an immoral war that costs nearly thirty billion dollars a year,” and as it “perpetuat[ed] racism” and “tolerat[ed] almost forty million poor people.” “The largest position of white America,” King noted, “is still poisoned by racism, which is as native to our soil as pine trees, sagebrush, and buffalo grass. Many whites hasten to congratulate themselves,” King added, in a comment that resonates loudly today, “in what little progress [black Americans] have made. I’m sure,” King opined, “that most whites felt that with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all race problems were automatically solved. Most white people are so removed from the life of the average Negro,” he observed, “there has been little to challenge that assumption.”
Unwilling (as he said in 1967) “to segregate my moral concern,” King also noted that the implications of true racial integration are more than just nationwide. Our disastrous experiences in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic have been,” he rightly observed, “in one sense, a result of racist decision-making. [The policy-making] men of the white West, whether or not they like it,” King boldly stated, “I have grown up in a racist culture, and their thinking is colored by that fact.”
However many females and people of color the power elite may incorporate into the American imperial apparatus, that formulation remains relevant today, when great, very predominantly white concentrations of wealth and power take massive sums of public money that ought to be serving poor black and Latino children on the West Side of Chicago and the South Bronx and invest that revenue in the bloody takeover of a distant oil-rich Arab land for reasons that have nothing to do with Iraqi freedom or weapons of mass destruction.
Paul Street is a writer and researcher in Chicago, Illinois. His book, Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 is available from Paradigm Publishers. His newest book, Segregated Schools: Race, Class and Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil Rights America (New York, NY: Routledge-Falmer, 2005) will be available in the summer of 2005. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
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