Was Forty Years Long Enough?

Was Forty Years Long Enough?
Rev. Douglas Taylor
1-18-09

Once a year we liberal minister types dust off our copies of the “I Have a Dream” speech to check in and see how we are doing. Have we made progress? Are we closer to realizing the dream now than we were before? Have we reached the Promised Land that King had seen before he died? Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and killed a little over forty years ago. On the night before his assassination, King delivered a speech to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee in which he closed saying:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. (-MLK 4/3/68 “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”)

This reference to being on the mountain top and seeing the Promised Land is a reference to the story of Moses and the Hebrews wandering in the desert for 40 years. Why forty years? The Bible is always talking about 40 days or 40 years. Is 40 a special number? Well, one interpretation is that anytime you see the number 40 in reference to time it means “long enough.” The Israelites were in the desert ‘long enough.’ Noah and the ark floated with no sign of land for ‘long enough.’ Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness for ‘long enough.’ Long enough for what? Well, specifically for the 40 years of wandering in the desert the Bible actually makes that pretty clear. God decided forty years was how long it would take for the men of fighting age that fled Egypt to die and the next generation to be ready. Throughout the Scripture the reason given is that God is punishing the original generation for their sin, for worshiping the golden calf while Moses was up on the mountain getting the Ten Commandments. Another interpretation might suggest that the generation who had the will and the understanding to leave Egypt behind did not have the will and the understanding to enter the Promised Land. Another generation with new will and a new understanding was needed.

And so it has been a little over 40 years since the Civil Rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King. Was forty years long enough for our walk through this wilderness? Are we almost there? Almost sixty years ago, whites and blacks learned in separate schools, drank from different water fountains, ate at separate lunch counters, and sat in different parts of the public bus. Within 20 years, much of that had changed. In 1961, (48 years ago) attorney general Robert F. Kennedy predicted that the country could elect a black president in the next 40 years. That’s how fast race relations were changing in America. Four decades back Massachusetts elected the first black man to the Senate. And nearly two decades back Virginia elected the first black governor. And now the nation has elected the first black president. There has been change. There has been progress. But it is premature to say we have arrived in the Promised Land. In the midst of all of that great progress there has also been the Rodney King beating, the O.J. Simpson farce of a trial, the rise and fall of the King of Pop Michael Jackson, and hurricane Katrina; all of these events were deeply tied to race. There has been a dramatic amount of racist vandalism over this past fall, much of it connected to Obama winning his parties nomination and then the presidency.

One person quipped that Rosa sat so that Martin could walk. Martin walked so that Barack could run. Barack ran so that we all could fly. I think this poem, though well arranged and poignant, falls into the trap of believing we have arrived at the Promised Land. I certainly agree that the election of Barack Obama as president signals a very significant moment in the history of race in the United States, I think it may be more accurate to say that we all are seeing the Promised Land rather than entering into it. Barack Obama is not our savior or our new Moses. Neither is he our Joshua who led the Israelites into the Promised Land, as the analogy I have been working may lead us to conclude. No, I don’t think Obama is even our Joshua. I think that, as with all analogies, this one breaks down eventually and fails to predict the future.

Let me, therefore step away from my elegant analogy of Moses and 40 years and the Promised Land to talk in plainer terms about this moment in time. The whole concept of ‘race’ is undergoing a shift, one that is necessary for us to recognize to be able to fully appreciate our present situation. When we talk about Dr. King’s dream, the Promised Land, the ultimate goal along the lines of race – we are talking about living together as one people, as a multiracial, multicultural, multiethnic united community. We are talking about bridging the differences.

How many remember that commercial for Coke back during the 1980 Super Bowl when a little kid tells Mean Joe Greene that he’s the best, gives the huge football star a coke and turn to leave. Greene turns to the boy and say, “Hey kid,” tosses his soiled jersey to the boy who responds, “Wow! Thanks, Mean Joe!” It was, arguably, a watershed moment in race relations. Here was this big black warrior-type being idolized by a young impressionable white kid. This commercial still makes the list of top ten best commercials ever on most lists I checked this weekend. The contrast of a big black man and a little white kid was simply that to the people who put the commercial together: a contrast. The goal was to sell Coke, not to make a leap in race relations.

Yet, the other contrast that happens in this commercial is the initial build up of racial tension and the resolution to racial harmony. And a bridge is built. Nat King Cole sings about chestnut roasting on an open fire and mainstream stores eventually carry his albums; and a bridge was built. Now it seems ridiculous to consider a music store not carrying a CD because the artist is not white. There are white hip hop artists and black pop stars. How many people have seen a movie in the past three years staring Will Smith, Hancock, Seven Pounds, I Am Legend, The Pursuit of Happyness. Do you need to go back further, I, Robot, Men in Black, Ali, Shark Tale? Smith is a movie icon. The mainstream culture in the form of movies, TV, sports, and music has largely transcended race.

In 2002, Leon Wynter, a seasoned columnist who focuses on business and Race, wrote a book entitled American Skin. The subtitle is, “Pop culture, big business, and the end of white America,” which signals the reader to the bold claim made by Mr. Wynter – namely that business marketing is impacting our cultural sense of race. And further, that mainstream culture is no longer ‘white.’ For the bulk of the history of our country, mainstream was synonymous with ‘white.’ This is way in which the concept of ‘race’ is shifting.

Race is a cultural construct rather than a genetic reality. There is no single genetic marker for race – race has no genetic basis. Modern scientists have discovered and continue to prove that no single gene, trait or characteristic distinguishes one race from another. Thus, race is a socially constructed concept. Not all social constructs are negative. Take ‘fairness’ for example. Life is not fair. And yet we work in our society to create fairness and equality. Fairness is a socially constructed concept. Race also is a social construct. Humanity is not made up of distinct biological ‘races’, yet it has been seen as politically and socially expedient over the years to have had definite divisions of humanity into various subgroups. Professor Kenneth Kennedy of Cornell University sums it up saying, “In the social sense, race is a reality. In the scientific sense, it is not.”

And then last week I read an article in Newsweek that seemed at first to throw that whole question of a biological basis of Race back up for debate. The article was about disease and pharmaceuticals. It began by acknowledging the long held understanding among geneticists that race is not genetically based. Then it mentions different health risks and drug responses among population groups. For example, studies found that people who identify themselves as African American benefit from a drug that relieves hypertension, but other racial or ethnic groups do not. Well, they had trouble marketing that without sounding like they were saying there is a genetic marker for race.

But one professor of health law, (Timothy Caulfield of University of Alberta) offered this clarification:

“Someone whose ancestors came from Nigeria is very different from a descendant of Kenyans, but if the two of them are walking down the sidewalk in New York, they’re both ‘black,” he says. “You can try to make those distinctions in your research, but once it gets into the hands of drug manufacturers, there’s going to be slippage … marketers want to sell to the broadest possible categories.” (Jerry Adler, “What’s Race Got to Do With It?” Newsweek, Jan 12, 2009 p16)

One can deduce, therefore, that researchers may find a genetic mark based on ethnicity or ancestral geography, nut marketers turn it into race. The article ends with the view that science and pharmaceuticals will eventually move past racial (or more accurately ethnic ancestry) groupings to the specificity of each individual’s genetic make-up. Which, I believe, is where all issues of race will eventually end. And that is the Promised Land we now see today. To judge one another not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. To see each person before you, not as part of this group or that group, but as an individual.

Today, young people feel they are post-racial, as in: their race is not limited to black, white, red or yellow. People like Tiger Woods are multiracial. He made news as a phenomenal golfer and the media was tied up trying to label him as black or as Asian. In an interview with Oprah he said. “Growing up, I came up with this name: I’m a ‘Cablinasian.’” As in Caucasian-black-Indian-Asian: Cablinasian. Technically he is ½ Asian, ¼ black, 1/8 white, and 1/8 American Indian. But this is also a way of saying, ‘see me as an individual, not as a Black individual or an Asian individual; simply as an individual.’

Even being biracial like Barack Obama is complicated enough. He is African American, and he is at the same time ½ African-American and ½ Caucasian. This can be true because there is not a scientific definition of race, the definition is cultural. But to go even deeper, he is half Kenyan and half (or nearly half) Irish. And if you read or at least have heard about the book How the Irish Became White, then you see that this both clarifies and complexifies the race and ethnic ancestry of our first black president.

Which brings us back to the earlier definition of race as a ‘cultural construction.’ To say he is our first black president is to sweep over his ethnic ancestry and simply label him as black. A label he accepts, of course. But it is only accurate if we understand race as a social construct rather than a genetic fact. And the election of Barack Obama as our president is another mark of the shift in the definition of ‘mainstream.’ Mainstream is becoming multicultural and multiracial. Mainstream America is no longer ‘white.’

Have we arrived? No. But the day is coming when our mainstream culture will regularly hold up images to which each American can say, ‘I see real and positive role models for myself and my children.’ The day is coming when the bridges built between our divisions will be stronger than the hate which longs to tear it all down. The day is coming when every American will be seen as an individual rather than as a racial category. The day is coming, the Promised Land has been glimpsed, the dream is waking to a new day dawning with room for us all.

In a world without end
May it be so