Our words may have changed, but racism lingers on — particularly in Wisconsin

It’s hard to forget certain dates.  Today, April 4, is one of them.  It is exactly 46 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I remember exactly where I was when I learned of his death in Memphis, where he was gunned down on the balcony of the Loraine Motel while participating in a rally in support of striking sanitation workers.  The headline of his death greeted me on the following morning as I entered the coffee shop in a downtown hotel in Decatur, Illinois, where I was working on a labor union project.

An older union representative whom we called “Red” saw the headline about the same time I did and uttered something like “it’s about time someone got that b—–d.”   I forget his exact words, but that’s what he meant.

In 1968, Red’s attitude was fairly typical among whites who considered Dr. King a radical, a communist, a troublemaker and a danger (the nouns usually accompanied by expletives).  We’ve come a long way since then, and I’m certain there’s a rare union man or woman who would share Red’s feelings, much less speak out loud so hatefully.  Much of the nation has adopted Dr. King as a symbol of peace and we celebrate his life with a national holiday, full of honor and praise.

Yet, how far have we “really” come as a nation in rooting out racial hatred and in providing persons of color with true equality and opportunity?

Some of us in the North might think most of the barriers have been broken through.  In many ways, it is true: particularly in urban areas there is a cheek-by-jowl existence with persons of varied racial backgrounds that forces us to live and work together in a semblance of harmony.  We joke and share stories with persons of other ethnic backgrounds almost every day; yet, when we socialize or meet for lunch, we too often go our separate ways.

In Wisconsin, we should be particularly ashamed.  Just a few days before April 4, the Annie E. Casey Foundation published a report ranking the Badger State the “worst” among the 50 states for black children in an index measuring 12 key indicators at various stages of life, including home situation, educational skills and income.

The report is a true indictment of our state’s failure to deal effectively with this economic and social inequity.  It only confirms what most of us have known for years.

Sadly, the policies being expressed among our leaders in Madison will do nothing but exacerbate the situation.  Governor Scott Walker and Republican-controlled Legislature have cut several avenues to better health care by refusing to expand Medicaid while cutting back on BadgerCare.  It has further sliced such benefits as FoodShare that assist poor families; it has taken steps that have weakened the Milwaukee Public School system.  None of the actions of the current Administration will do anything but to make the inequities facing African-Americans grow worse.

You may hear occasional platitudes from Walker and Rep. Paul Ryan (the Wisconsin Republican who heads the House Budget Committee) honoring Dr. King, but don’t accept such hypocrisy.  Perhaps, if they were being honest with us, they’d sound more like Red in that hotel coffee shop in 1968.  Ken Germanson, April 4, 2014

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