Snowflakes in January: What the MLK marches are really about


graphic by Tyler Herron

The white victimhood narrative espoused in Isaiah Mitchell’s recent column as the supposed motive for marching is frankly insulting to the thousands of people marching for diverse, warranted and vitally important causes. Anyone who has attended this march in recent years knows that the implications of structural racism in its many forms are front and center in the signs and voices of the organizations that honor Martin Luther King’s legacy. Labor groups, academics — including many from Trinity — LGBT rights organizations, education advocates and organizers of all sorts of political movements coalesce to continue the fight for equality.

People are not marching for the sake of marching, as it becomes easy to believe when you are not faced with the implications of institutional, economic and social racism. As it turns out, these groups are not focused on ‘sorority girls wearing sombreros’, as Mitchell would have us all believe. These are all things that a simple visit to the march would quickly reveal.

Mitchell’s piece contains several out-of-context statistics. First came the statistic indicting welfare programs, which Mitchell claims caused more black kids to grow up without parents. This is an obvious non-sequitur, as perhaps an economic or health-related statistic is a better indicator of the effectiveness of a welfare program? Statistics which are actually relevant show marked improvement in black people’s lives because of these programs.

For instance, Medicaid reduced black infant mortality by 20 percent in 30 years, reduced cancer death rates by 29 percent and reduced the life expectancy gap between black and white men to its lowest point in history. SNAP, the U.S. food stamp program, lifted 2.2 million people out of poverty in 2014. The statistic Mitchell uses demonstrates the failure of the War on Drugs, a conservative policy which removed many black parents from their children’s lives by imprisoning them on drug possession charges.

The other statistic mentioned by Mitchell is that fewer black people attend private schools now, a 28-year-old statistic. I would love to have a dialogue about this, but the statistic itself is conspicuously missing from the citation provided in the article. Maybe better to drop it than double down on what appears to be a defense of segregated public schools.

The stats I mentioned above are not to say that we have overcome institutional and structural racism. In fact, there are important statistics which demonstrate that there is something still worth marching for. Notable among these are the shocking disparities in medical treatments, including disproportionate and growing maternal mortality rates among black women. Simply blaming democratic social policy for anti-black racism is lazy. We cannot afford to ignore the ways in which racist structures are created and dismantled over time, often in forms that bear uncanny resemblance to chattel slavery.

But the article couldn’t stop there. Among the misleading statistics and circular arguments littered throughout this piece is the claim that racism was never a social phenomenon. It’s strange how Mitchell can harken back to the gratuitous violence of fire hoses, police dogs and attacks weathered by protesters while sticking to this claim. Is the racism so clearly seen in drug sentencing disparities, rampant police brutality, housing discrimination, racial health disparities and voter suppression a strictly economic trend? Of course not. We cannot be complacent with an explanation so narrow and a-historical that we refuse to investigate it and stay home to avoid any meaningful dialogue on the issue.

Even looking through the lens provided by this article, something important is missing. If we agree that there is discrimination and inequality in democratic economic reforms, then why not march against them? How could the failure of the Democrats to resolve economic racism possibly be a reason to stay home? How could an argument coming out so angrily against the trajectory of our country’s dialogue not warrant this type of civic engagement?

In a shocking turn of events, it seems like this article has de facto disproven its own argument. The kind of ignorance about legacy and continued existence of anti-black institutions in this country that Mitchell professes seems to demonstrate how important it is that we keep this conversation going by continuing to march in the legacy of MLK.

Ian Dill is a copy editor for The Contemporary, a student-edited public affairs journal.