Scott MacKay Commentary: MLK Day 2016, We Can Do Better

Jan 15, 2016

As we celebrate the legacy of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay wonders why we still haven’t made the progress that King envisioned.

Today is the day we honor King, the preacher and activist who pricked the conscience of a nation. 

It was King who moved the civil rights crusade from the pulpits of his native American south to the halls of Congress and beyond.

King’s hopes and dreams were expressed in both biblical eloquence and a steely resolve to push our nation to live up to the professed ideal of our founding document –that all are created equal.

Yet, seven years into the administration of  our first African-American president, race relations in our state and nation seem stuck, as if centuries of discrimination have overwhelmed decades of progress. From California to Cranston, it often seems as if we have forgotten, or chose to ignore, King’s message.

Here we are in 2016, and not one African-American actor is among the Oscar nominees. Closer to home a Cranston police recruiting drive that began with a focus on racial and gender diversity has resulted in five white males as finalists for jobs.

Winning the White House and blathering on about minority recruiting has not meant anything near full equality for people who were forced to our shores in chains. King spoke in Rhode Island during his civil rights crusade in the 1960s. At Brown University shortly after John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960, King hailed the election of the first Roman Catholic president as a victory for tolerance and called for an interracial civil rights coalition.

At the University of Rhode Island in 1966, King was more downcast. He told a crowd of 5,000 that he feared the nation had taken a ``swing to the reactionary’’ that would result in more schisms in the civil rights movement. Back at Brown a year later, King delivered a speech at Sayles Hall opposing the Vietnam War.

While many individual Rhode Islanders, black and white, were involved in King’s civil rights revolution, our small, overwhelmingly white state was not in the forefront of the movement. Blacks had lived in Rhode Island since the 1600s, but never made up more than 8 percent of the population until the late 1960s.

Providence was the center of the black community in Rhode Island, but no black was hired as a police officer in the capital city until after World War II. The black community is still underrepresented in public employment in the city, especially in the police, fire and school departments.  And in top City Hall positions.

Things aren’t  any better at the State House, where just two members of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s cabinet are African-Americans. Only one black, Superior Court Judge Walter Stone, sits on our state’s trial court bench.

And House Speaker Nick Mattiello of Cranston made news last year when he denied that there was such a thing as `white privilege.’ The remark astonished leaders of the black community, who wondered how such a politically astute man could be so ignorant of history.

Jim Vincent, president of the NAACP in Providence, says that both Raimondo and Mayor Jorge Elorza ``can do better.’’

Some Rhode Island institutions have done better than others in embracing diversity, but most of us have not done our best, in either the public or private sectors.

The national economy is undeniably better under President Obama than it was the day he took office. But sometimes it seems as if a rising economic tide has mostly lifted the yachts, not the boats rowed by people of color.

A study by the Economic Progress Institute shows that Rhode Island blacks have a median income of about $36,000 annually compared to about $59,000 for whites. While one in four adult blacks lack high school degrees, only about one in 10 whites lack that credential.

To say nothing of the overrepresentation of blacks  and other minorities at the state prison and the low rate of black graduates of URI.

We will celebrate King’s career and mission in song, sermon and remembrance. As we sing James Weldon Johnson’s majestic `Lift Every Voice and Sing’ and join hands for `We Shall Overcome’ at services today, let’s not dwell on how far we have come. Let’s honestly assess how far we have to travel and accelerate our collective journey to a society where the content of one’s character counts more than the color of one’s skin.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:40 and 8:40 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow Scott’s reporting and political analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org