“Whenever I am asked my opinion of the current state, I am forced to pause; it is not easy to describe a crisis so profound that it has caused the most powerful nation in the world to stagger in confusion and bewilderment.” These are the opening words of one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last essays titled “A Testament of Hope.” As has been true throughout my life, the words of Dr. King, though written over 50 years ago, speak clearly to the times I am living in.
Today’s problems are so acute because the tragic evasions and defaults of several centuries have accumulated to disaster proportions. The luxury of a leisurely approach to urgent solutions – the ease of gradualism- was forfeited by ignoring the issues for too long. Confronted now with the interrelated problems, our country is now forced to address itself to what might once have been a series of separate problems that now merged into a social crisis of almost stupefying complexity.
“A social crisis of almost stupefying complexity” describes how we are entering 2022 with a political and health system continuing to fail in responding to the two-year Covid crisis. As Dr. King makes clear, the immediate crisis we see is based on long-term failures.
When millions of people have been cheated for centuries, restitution is a costly process. Inferior education, poor housing, unemployment, inadequate health care – each will require billions [today trillions?] to correct. Justice so long deferred has accumulated interest and its cost for this society will be substantial in financial as well as human terms.
The nation begins another year looking at the steep costs of past failures. Whether it is climate change, a failure to develop a national universal healthcare system or bridging racial economic inequality our country is as Dr. King describes “not marching forward; we are groping and stumbling; we are divided and confused… exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society.”
King’s “Testament of Hope” is based on a realist assessment of the need for political/economic and moral change. King is clear eyed that America must embrace radical change and this change will not come from the experts and or the elite establishment. “Naïve and unsophisticated though we may be, the poor and despised of the twentieth century will revolutionize this era.” Today and over the last few years there has been a push to return to normalcy defined alternatively as before the Covid pandemic or before the Trump presidency but the norms of the past and the failure to institutionalize fundamental change is what keeps us in what feels like a never-ending crisis.
There are brief moments when it appears that the nation will break away from its denial of ongoing destructive policy and practice. The nation has celebrated a national “reckoning” concerning anti-Black racism following the internationally viewed murder of George Floyd, yet the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act has failed to pass into the law along with any other legislation that would significantly bridge racial inequality for African Americans. The nation continues the cycle I have witnessed throughout my life to irregularly cry out over unjustifiable beatings and sometimes murder of African Americans but refuse to embrace a radical new path toward policing, incarceration and community care. Fifty-three years after Dr. King’s assassination, we are still at the state where “Today’s dissenter tell the complacent majority that the time has come when further evasion of social responsibility in a turbulent world will court disaster and death. America has not yet changed because so many think it need not change, but this is the illusion of the damned.”
Out of fear of confrontation or exhaustion from struggle, we cannot retreat to ignoring the crises around us with the illusion that retreating to the status quo is the way forward. Instead, we must learn, as Dr. King did, to embrace “the sense of affirmation generated by the challenge of embracing struggle and surmounting obstacles.” Honoring Dr. King in 2022 is to continue to call for radical change amidst a national mood of melancholy and discouragement.
Dedrick Asante-Muhammad is NCRC’s Chief of Membership, Policy and Equity.