He Had a Dream… For You

Monday January 21 marked a historic event, the annual commemoration and 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, as well as the inauguration for the 2nd term of our 1st Black president, Barack Obama, who (as you might expect) gave a wonderful speech with his usual eloquence. Also impressive were the crowds who turned out to see him. People of all backgrounds, races, nationalities. It’s one of the strengths of our country, the tremendous diversity we have. Obama’s speech reflected this, citing various civil rights milestones and promises to ensure that the fundamental freedoms by our Founding Fathers continue to be granted to everyone. These are indeed themes that Dr. King addressed in his famous speech 5 decades ago.

But what of the people who now take freedom for granted? What of those people who have no idea, no clue about the efforts of the valiant civil rights activists who brought about these tremendous changes in American society? In particular, the immigrants who have come here and prospered, the ones who really know very little about Dr. King and his brothers and sisters, without whom they would not be in this country?

Let us first speak in defense of the newly immigrated. Survival is the number 1 priority. Finding a job, finding housing, learning the language (in some cases), feeding one’s family, taking care of the children, adapting to a new culture—-the list goes on. The reasons for which people have immigrated to the US are as diverse and varied as the citizens of this country. In some cases, it is politics. In others, economics. Perhaps some people are joining their families, whereas others are leaving their families behind. Even after decades, sometimes immigrants have not adapted well, and still struggle with life in the United States, missing their homelands and all they have left behind. Sometimes this process continues for more than one generation, as the children inherit the difficulties of their parents.

These are all extremely valid and important issues in the life of an immigrant, things that cannot be denied. But are these things mutually exclusive from maintaining a grateful attitude and having a healthy curiosity about the history that enabled so many people to immigrate to the United States? What I attack is apathy: apathy that is born of ignorance, blind prejudice against particular racial groups (read: Black/African-American), insularity, sticking only to one’s kind, and a sense of entitlement. You think the civil rights movement was simply something that happened 50 years ago? Something to give you a day off from school or work, and something for the kids to learn about at school? Think again.

Especially if you are a non-white, prosperous immigrant, living in your wealthy suburb or ethnic enclave—-Fremont, California, perhaps, or Houston, Texas, or Flushing, New York—-riding to the shopping mall or your ethnic grocery in your large SUV or luxury vehicle, going to your house of worship, spending hours at your office earning a six-figure salary, gathering with your friends and watching the latest video clips from your home country, YOU HAVE EVERY REASON TO BE GRATEFUL TO THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT. Do you know anything about the Selma to Montgomery marches that now enable you to have the right to vote (if you actually vote at all)? Are you aware that Martin Luther King Jr. was influenced by the great Mohandas K. Gandhi when he led African-Americans in acts of civil disobedience? Do you know that “colored” people had to drink from separate water fountains, as you sit sipping your latte at your Starbucks surrounded by people of all nationalities? As you fight to get your child into a great public school or university so you don’t have to pay exorbitant private fees, are you aware that the Little Rock Nine had to be escorted by the National Guard to enter their school that was newly desegregated? How about those white Freedom Riders who risked their lives for people of a different color, because they felt the call of justice so strongly? As you debate about whether or not to return to your home country because it is prospering too, and you can have daily maid service, do you know that there were strict immigration quotas in the 1960s to avoid “too many of your kind”? And as you angrily scold your son wearing baggy pants with the crotch hanging down to his knees in “ghetto style,” do you stop for a moment to think how much your existence is owed to the Civil Rights Movement, to all the African-Americans who fought, sacrificed, endured hardship, and even lost their lives so that yours could be comfortable?

We might still be light years off with accomplishing all the goals that the Civil Rights Movement set out to accomplish. We might still be dealing with discrimination, prejudice, harassment, and a whole host of racially based evils. But it is of utmost importance to live mindfully as immigrants, to take just a moment out of the day to practice gratitude for those who have paved your way. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream—-and you are living it.

(And yes, those baggy pants with the crotch down to the knees are most unbecoming. Even Dr. King would have said so.)

Mama Africa

This post is a sort of counterpoint to the previous one, I suppose. A couple of years back, in order to get myself out of a bad mood, I decided to search online for some information related to poverty, as my status as a well-educated American is certainly a very enviable one, globally speaking. I happened upon some Human Development Index (HDI) charts, and they brought me to tears. At the bottom of the list were the nations of sub-Saharan Africa. I think Niger was at the bottom of the list. And it struck me, as it has struck me many times before—–
Why is it that the darker the skin, the poorer the man?
Why is it that the poorest countries have the darkest-skinned people? Or,
Why is it that, in every country (even in populations where everyone is dark-skinned), the poorest people or the people at the bottom of society are the most dark?

The negative effects of this are numerous. Not only is there the obvious issue of racial discrimination, but also issues of public health, education, political access, and economics. The causes are also numerous: colonialism, capitalism gone wild, internal strife/civil war, the interaction of genetics and culture (social Darwinism), the caste system (in India; caste means “color,” but it also relates to labor and one’s particular social group). People of non-white cultures will most certainly freely admit that there is discrimination among them, and lighter-skinned people are considered “better.”

But when this issue is on such a continental scale, when the poorest nations are all centered on one continent, one cannot help but ask why this is so, and why more effective efforts are not being done? What is it about the intertwining of capitalism and race that has led to such social stratification? One person alone cannot provide all the answers; even governments and institutions struggle with this and have been struggling with this for centuries.

Perhaps part of it begins with those of us in the developed world examining our perceptions, or shall we say, misperceptions of Africa as all one monolithic place. The continent is a conglomeration of many races, religions, languages, and cultures. Over 50 countries comprise the continent countries which can be perceived as various regions, such as Egypt and the Maghreb (the Muslim north); the Saharan countries which are so sparsely populated and often nomadic; Western Africa, from where American blacks trace their ancestry, with oil-rich Nigeria; the cradle of human origins in Eastern Africa, mountainous regions as well as plains; Central Africa, former colonies which are still undergoing much political strife as well as being developed for harvesting natural resources, and the world’s poorest country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Southern Africa with its ever-continuing legacy of European settlers and high rates of AIDS. These are but crass generalizations, but it is imperative that people see Africa as a continent with great diversity connected through geography, history, and, sadly, poverty and a lack of development.

It is not simply fashionable, leftist rhetoric to raise these questions and correlate poverty with skin color; the statistics speak for themselves. This is the beauty of the social sciences, to be able to connect theories about society with the hard data that backs it up. We must examine the manifestations of poverty in each of our societies and communities in which we live. We must be willing to ask the hard questions and examine the hard answers. Yes, it may be ugly. But so is the reality that billions of people all over the world, not just in Africa, are facing.