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Remembering Martin Luther King

The following post first appeared in my weekly column in the print edition of the Weekly Trust newspaper, Abuja, Nigeria on January 28, 2006...

The following post first appeared in my weekly column in the print edition of the Weekly Trust newspaper, Abuja, Nigeria on January 28, 2006.

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Last week, I was torn between publishing the emails of readers who took the trouble to respond to my column and writing on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the brilliant African-American preacher and civil rights activist whose birthday was celebrated throughout the United States on January 16.

But being the deliberative democrat that I like to fancy myself as being, I settled for the former. I thought Dr. King was already such a larger-than-life figure whose shrill, biting, even if disembodied, voice still stings the conscience of his country and who, even in death, looms so large that it would be superfluous to write about him at the expense of shutting out my readers.

January 16 is a federal holiday in the United States dedicated to honor the memory of the late Dr. King. It is the first and only federal holiday observed in honor of one individual in the entire history of the United States. Not even the first president of this country or, for that matter, any past or living president has a day specially commemorated in his name.

The death (murder is the right word) and life (yes, in that order) of Dr. King are so well-known that it will be trite recounting them here. It suffices to say, however, that Dr. King, who won the Nobel Prize for Peace for his consistent advocacy of non-violence to dislodge the racism in the United States that cruelly stole the humanity of Black people, captured the imagination of the world when, in 1963, he delivered his famous “I have a Dream” speech during the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

One of the most memorable quotes from that speech is the portion where he said he had a dream that one day his children would grow up and not be judged by the “color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Over 40 years after this speech, King’s dream is at best in the twilight zone between reality and cloud-cuckoo-land. Even President George Bush admitted this on January 16 when he said, “The reason to honor Martin Luther King is to remember his strength of character and his leadership, but also to remember the remaining work.”

Yes, a lot of progress has been made over the years, a lot of work still remains to be done to reverse centuries of racial oppression and exclusion of Blacks in the United States.

Black Americans are still largely condemned to the lowest rung of the social hierarchy. While there have been a lot of improvements over the years in the status of Blacks here (they have produced two Secretaries of State in quick succession, and are comparatively the richest and most educated Black people in the world) they are still the lowest common denominators in America.

Last year, for instance, while underscoring the needlessness for Americans to be worried by the massive influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico, the president of that country, Vincent Foxx, was quoted to have said that, after all, most Mexicans who immigrate to the United State illegally take jobs that “not even Blacks will take.”

Many black leaders were outraged by this comment. But invidious as the comment is, it encapsulates a basic truth: Blacks are still at the bottom of the American society.

In the university where I study and teach, all the dirty, menial and lowly jobs are done by Blacks. They get the lowest grades in class and have a disproportionately low enrollment figure in universities and colleges. They also constitute a disproportionate percentage of prison inmates and homeless people in this country. And a large number of them who have homes live in fetid ghettoes.

When I had occasion to visit Harlem in New York in 2003, I couldn’t believe what I saw. It felt as if I was in Ajegunle in Lagos—forlorn, God-forsaken, filthy, foul, and poverty-stricken.

In Washington D.C., the nation’s capital, about eight out of every 10 beggars I came across were Black. In New Orleans, one of the Blackest cities in the United States, Blacks live in conditions that simply defy explanation. Grubby poverty in Black neighborhoods uncannily lives side by side with obscenely stupendous prosperity in white neighborhoods.

When you visit New Orleans as a tourist, it is easy to be misled by the incredible architectural splendor of the city and to go away with the impression that New Orleans, the biggest city in the state of Louisiana, is a prosperous white city.

But if you take the trouble to visit the fringes of the city where Black people who constitute over 60 percent of the population of the city live, you will be confronted by unspeakable poverty.

It was last year’s Hurricane Katrina that exposed this grim reality to the world. Most poor Blacks didn’t have cars to evacuate from their deplorable homes before the hurricane struck. And they perished in their thousands. The pictures of severe deprivation reminiscent of Third World countries that came out of New Orleans shocked many people, including many complacent white people who had deluded themselves into believing that poverty didn’t exist in America.

Again, over 70 percent of Blacks in this country are born outside wedlock, prompting one of my friends here to label the Black community as “a community of bastards.” The word “daddy” has almost gone out of the demotic vocabulary of American Blacks because most of them have no fathers; they are reared by single mothers who mostly get pregnant in their early teens and live on government welfare for the rest of their lives.

Now, not all of these problems are the consequence of racism. Some of them are self-inflicted, but to ignore the context that spawned this state of affairs in the first place will be to do injustice to the Blacks here.

It was only in 1965, for instance, that all Black people in the South had a right to vote. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which formally abolished the enslavement of Black people in this country, Blacks were still regarded as subhuman. In the Constitution of the United States, Blacks were called “three-fifth of a man,” that is, a Black person is only 60 percent of a human being. And this was supposed to represent an improvement on their erstwhile status as non-humans.

With the signing of the civil rights legislation in the 1960s, racism has only been forced to put on an elegant make-up. Blacks are still suppressed and stereotyped. But this is now more subtle than before.

Blacks are no longer legally segregated in schools, restaurants, buses, etc. They are no longer derided openly as “niggers.” In fact, there is a program of affirmative action (the American equivalent of our own federal character principle) that reserves quotas for them in employment and schools, but these are still largely tokenistic. Blacks are still stereotyped as congenitally criminal and mentally subnormal. This breeds pervasive low-self esteem and a negative self-fulfilling prophecy among them.

I have not yet met a white man, especially in the South, who does not despise American Blacks in the sly. Surprisingly, however, whites here seem to have more respect and tolerance for African immigrants than they have for their Black compatriots—or so it seems to me.

Many of my white friends here habitually make snide remarks about African-Americans in my presence, and I wonder why they imagine that I would not be hurt. I discovered that they regard us as very different from African Americans. It is not only that they see us as "freeborn," as opposed to African Americans who are "ex-slaves,"; most African immigrants here excel in whatever they do in ways that explode the myth of innate Black inferiority.

According to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, for instance, the African immigrant community in the United States is the most educated immigrant community. It is more educated than the European and Asian immigrant communities.

However, in actual fact, white people can’t tell an African American from an African. The only way they differentiate us is through our accents and our names.

I remember once being accosted by a gang of white police officers (my city is predominantly white) because I was walking near a home. The police thought I was an African American and suspected that I wanted to rob the home. They encircled me menacingly with guns and asked me to surrender. I was at once amused and bemused.

When I asked to know what was going on, my accent betrayed my identity, and they immediately relaxed and became friendly with me. They asked for my ID card and said they were just doing their routine duty.

Racial profiling is still alive and well here. It has only covered its nakedness with deceptively chic garments.

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