• Joe Wilkinson

Equity: A Modern Interpretation of MLK’s Vision of Equality

Thinking about the legacy of MLK and his messages about equality, I find uneasiness in what this term has ultimately come to mean for so many…

Although it wasn’t a buzzword during his life, I think MLK was much more of an advocate for equity, which is what equality were to be if it operated in a vacuum (OR, absent of our nation’s history). Here’s why:

I think about cases such as Brown v. Board of Education where the idea of separate, but equal (in the context of public education) was deemed as inherently unequal. I think about the countless examples that serve as almost perfect analogies to Brown v. Board whether it be our judicial system, housingand economic development, and portrayal in the media, just to name a few.

As some African-Americans over the decades have made early breakthroughs, it has been made out to seem as though decades and centuries of oppression and disenfranchisement were out of the window. This notion of equality was perceived by most Americans to have existed in a vacuum, when it was clear that at that time there has been little to no transferring of power to African-Americans nor even the means by which to catalyze such a transferring. It was just simply believed that idea that of the American dream now actually worked for us as well.

It is clear that progress has been made on this front, but more subversive means of oppression and disenfranchisement have entered, and the dominant belief is now to blame those who have very little for their own problems, without at all examining why or how they got there. Without understanding many of the systems and structures that likely kept them down for so long and has made it nearly impossible for them to come out.

Almost ironically, inequality is now starting to become so severe that the issue significantly affects White Americans in a way that it has already affected African-Americans and other minorities for so long, yet we are still the ones that are seen as lazy and unreasonable for voicing our grievances. What’s most sad is that many of our leaders have succeeded in framing these collective struggles in a way that pits black against white (or white against non-white more recently). There is commonality in the economic suffering, but African-Americans have much more experience with America letting them down in myriad other different forms, hence why the election of Trump surprised so few people of color. We already know how nasty a place this country can be and is for so many.

Even after all this, so many people still seem to be insensitive and indifferent to the plight of African-Americans, minorities, and other marginalized groups. It is as though there is nothing to be gained by taking the time to understand the causes of poverty and civil unrest in communities of color — without ever once considering that ways of finding solutions in these communities may provide a framework for how to better help rural and working class whites communities. Again, these issues are closely intertwined from an economic perspective, but are seen by the masses as completely disparate from one another because of our fear to truthfully confront our nations’ gruesome past (and present) around race and the treatment of minorities. I personally did not see the connection until this most recent election.

All that being said, I’m reluctantly going to do something I usually throw shade at others for, and that is try to find a more contemporary interpretation of MLK’s message. I believe it centralizes around the word equality. MLK clearly knew and frequently spoke to the fact that the playing field for African-Americans at the time was far from leveled to begin with. He nonetheless chose to use the word equality, which in it’s most basic form means equal opportunity for all. This word over time unfortunately has become a codeword for passivity.

The idea that things were fine as is and that equality “will come at the right time and to be patient”, knowing well and true that that window of time was indefinite. MLK didn’t live to see the festering angst that grew in the black community during the 70s and 80s because of the playing out of empty promises made during the 60s. I suspect he’d take a problem with where we currently stand as a nation.

As decades have passed and it has become abundantly clear that accomplishing equality requires a more active dismantling of many of our current laws and systems, the word equity began to surface because it was clear that seeking justice required greater intentionality and reach to work against what the status quo was. I think it’s clear that even in the absence of political buzzwords, MLK’s heart and mind was one that was much more ideologically aligned towards seeking equity. Equity — is seeming more and more an absolute necessity in our society if there is ever a chance for true equality to become a reality.

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