The racial tension at the University of Oklahoma paints the latest picture of the trouble brewed by 50 years of backlash to Martin Luther King Jr.'s courageous "We Shall Overcome" movement.
Research and cell-phone videos are debunking the notion that white millennials are less racist than previous generations. A busload of drunken Oklahoma fraternity members got Riley Cooper-ed. Someone secretly recorded them singing, "There will never be a n----r in SAE." The short video so disturbed the campus that Bob Stoops canceled football practice and joined his players in public protest, and the school's president immediately kicked the frat off campus and expelled two students.
More troubling than the video is the data Politico's Sean McElwee used to pen an enlightening piece on Monday that argued millennials are not nearly as tolerant as they think they are. His closing paragraph warned that recent Supreme Court decisions that strike against civil-rights gains based on Chief Justice John Roberts' view of a post-racial, colorblind America foreshadow a bleak future.
"This is disturbing for the future of race in America," McElwee wrote. "The Roberts vision of radical colorblindness has irreparably harmed racial progress. If young Americans buy into his vision of a colorblind society -- and a large literature suggests they do -- white America and black America will diverge further, creating a permanent underclass in which people of color are denied equitable access to the American dream."
We're headed in the wrong direction. It's not just white millennials. The half-century of unrelenting attack on Dr. King's dignified, nonviolent strategy to circumvent white supremacy swept up black millennials, too. You can see that in Oklahoma. There was a second video, intentionally filmed by Oklahoma starting linebacker Eric Striker, that perfectly illustrated where we are in America.
Shirtless and fuming, Striker, who is black, was evidently so shocked to learn that his white peers were bigoted that he answered their intolerance with an intolerant, profanity-laced rant.
"I'm so m-----f---ing furious right now. SAE just f---ed it up for all you f---ing white fraternities. F--- all you b----es. ... F--- you phony-ass, fraud-ass b----es."
Striker is the toast of the media at the moment. He's a scholarship football player at a major university. He's an ambassador. He's standing on the shoulders of Jackie Robinson, who endured far worse than a short video clip of drunken kids singing a racist song. His error does not equal the SAE's, but it's a mistake nonetheless, a lapse in judgment that undermines his claim of hurt. Striker apologized for his profanity but says he stands by the substance of his comments. What substance? He advanced no cause. He unwittingly pandered to the No Justice, No Peace crowd that has rejected Dr. King's strategy as passionately as the right wing.
We're moving dangerously close to President Barack Obama being the period at the end of Dr. King's dream sentence. President Obama is a civil-rights baby, a seed planted by a generation of Americans willing to sacrifice their lives for the idea of racial equality.
For 50 years we've lived off the fruits of their sacrifice. For 50 years we have inched further and further away from the strategies and principles they embraced to win our freedom. Our history has been so distorted and perverted that feel-good rhetoric (Malcolm X) has been granted equality with strategy and sacrifice (King). I write that having read the autobiography of Malcolm X a half-dozen times. X's story is truly inspiring. But the truth is Elijah Muhammad built and organized the racially flawed religion that transformed Malcolm Little from criminal to orator.
It's foolish to celebrate the fruit and ignore the tree.
Martin Luther King Jr. is our tree.
President Obama's MLK-like speech commemorating the 50-year anniversary of Bloody Sunday -- the historic terrorizing of peaceful civil-rights marchers in Selma, Alabama -- all but begged us to rediscover the trees planted by John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel and Hosea Williams.
"Selma teaches us, too, that action requires that we shed our cynicism," Obama advised. "For when it comes to the pursuit of justice, we can afford neither complacency nor despair. ... To deny this progress -- our progress -- would be to rob us of our own agency, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better."
Millennials and their thought leaders lambaste Obama and other older African-American leaders for practicing "respectability politics" whenever they remind young people they have a responsibility to carry and present themselves in a respectable manner. Dr. King and his supporters frequently wore suits and ties to their police-sanctioned massacres. They answered hostility and hatred with dignity and love. Their strategy was not flawed or ineffective. The flaws and failure are in the half-century of follow-up by black leaders and the outright assault on African-American equality by the right wing.
The impact of that failure and assault is manifesting itself in a generation of young people born into Ronald Reagan's and N.W.A.'s America. Respect -- for oneself and others -- is optional. In fact, respect -- for oneself and others -- is seen as a sign of weakness. Reagan and Eazy-E raised and inspired this Selfie Generation, the most photographed and least reflective generation of young people America has ever produced.
It's not their fault. They do not know what they haven't been taught. Respect -- for oneself and others, respect for their elders. Why should they respect a generation of parents too irresponsible or trapped in America's drug war to raise them, too focused on material possessions to instill meaningful values, too hedonistic to sacrifice, too decimated by the intentional destruction of the middle class to care for them properly?
The Selfies have been bathed in white supremacy and the calculated decision to allow a handful of black entertainers to financially benefit from the commodification of negative black stereotypes. Offered an opportunity to advance into the 1 percent, Eazy-E and Russell Simmons accepted junior partnerships in the business of white supremacy and black exploitation. Desperate to escape the ghetto, rappers transformed platforms spreading self-knowledge and pride into if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em, self-degradation marketing campaigns for America's mass incarceration policy.
This is what passed for progress in the 50 years of backlash to Dr. King. A generation of young people have overdosed on black stereotypes and the N-word. Smart people foolishly believe we've turned a verbal grenade intended to psychologically destroy us (n---er) into a verbal grenade (n---a) that uplifts us when we detonate it. It's the equivalent of believing black people can shoot each other in the head as a sign of affection.
You can see our collective descent at the University of Oklahoma. William Bruce James II, the last black SAE at OU, wonders why and how his fraternity regressed racially since he pledged 14 years ago. In a blog post, he expressed shame for joining the group and hoped there would never be another black SAE. He's given in to the cynicism President Obama warned against.
"We just need to open our eyes, and ears, and hearts," Obama said from the Alabama bridge still named after a member of the KKK, "to know that this nation's racial history still casts its long shadow upon us."
The shadow is getting longer.