Published 12:01 a.m., Saturday, May 7, 2011
Deborah Austin-Ford (letter, April 9) asks what Martin Luther King‘s family would think of the choice of Van Jones as the annual King lecturer at Siena College. While the family’s opinion would be of interest, we could turn to what King scholars might say and, even better, to King’s own words.
Austin-Ford writes that Jones signed a 911truth.org petition and focuses attention on why communities of color are more likely to suffer environmental degradation and harm than white communities.
On Jones’ alleged “socialism,” to this day, some accuse or disparage King for having been a “communist,” largely because he spoke out against U.S. foreign policy on Vietnam and Latin America. King gave many speeches in which he criticized America for its hypocrisy of supporting undemocratic regimes and its seeming pursuit of profit.
The consensus among King scholars is that his later thought was taking a serious socialist turn, as he began to spotlight poverty. Consider his words from “Chaos or Community”:
“A true revolution of values will look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say ‘This is not just.’ The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ ”
Hence I doubt Jones’ association with organizations having “communist roots” would trouble King.
On environmental racism, King’s criticism of American domestic policy was a lifelong pursuit. Consider this passage from King’s “Where Are We?”:
“Let us take a look at the size of the problem through the lens of the Negro’s status in 1967 … half of all Negroes live in substandard housing, and Negroes have half the income of whites … There are twice as many unemployed. The rate of infant mortality among Negroes is double that of whites. … There were twice as many Negroes as whites in combat in Vietnam at the beginning of 1967 … .”
There are hard facts of environmental racism, as cited by environmentalist Robert Bullard: Three out of five African-Americans live in communities with abandoned toxic waste sites; three of the five largest commercial hazardous waste landfills are in predominantly African-American or Latino American communities and account for 40 percent of the nation’s total estimated landfill capacity. About such facts, and the possibility of increasing jobs for all Americans by transferring to cleaner energy, King would be speaking right along with Jones.
We do no honor to King or his precious legacy if we attempt to ‘deradicalize’ his thought, or attend only to his positive messages on love and racial harmony and ignore his negative criticisms of America and the flaws of a market society.
I wish protesters at Jones’ lecture would have stayed to listen to him. They would have heard a gifted, intelligent leader encouraging students to use their intelligence, tech savvy and sheer size as a future third of the electorate to create a healthier and more just nation and planet.
Jennifer McErlean, Ph.D., is a member of the departments of philosophy and environmental studies at Siena College.
Phi Beta Iota: It’s called cognitive dissonance–when the “party line” becomes so divorced from reality that growing numbers of individuals realize they are being screwed. Sadly, the combination of a dumbed down public and the cult-like extremism of the left and right have prolonged the period of dysfunctionality in the USA. However, 2012 is, in our view, a year of awakening, and the same dictators now falling in the Arab Spring–dictators long supported by the USA with military and other forms of assistance–will inevitably reach the USA, which will either fragment into smaller nations with greater cohesion and coherence (grounded in reality) or “reset” as a confederation that slams the federal monster into a much smaller box.