Cook: Race, truth and MLK

Cook: Race, truth and MLK

January 16th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

I believe Dr. Martin Luther King was a founding father of another sort -- like a president of the American conscience -- who begged us to declare independence from the cruel kings of racism, poverty and violence.

Yet we're still bound up. Still fettered to those cruel kings. That new America -- one based on brother and sisterhood, justice and peacemaking -- has yet to be fully born.

I wonder if it ever will.

Dr. King taught that telling the truth with love is our vehicle, the grand train that helps us through the labor pains of creating that more perfect union. Lies and fiction won't do it.

What if, this year, we tried to be more honest with each other? To tell the truth together?

I'll start.

One night last week, I was downtown, a few blocks from M.L. King Boulevard. The sun had set. I was on a somewhat-dark street corner, talking with a friend who is white, like me.

He and I were talking politics when I spotted a group of four or five teenagers walking our way on our side of the sidewalk. A few had sweatshirt hoods pulled up over their heads. They were males.

And black.

I tensed up.

Because I immediately associated them with criminals.

And I would not have done that had they been white.

I'm not proud of that. At all. But it's true.

Yes, most of the recent gun violence in Chattanooga comes at the hands of black teens. But it's massively unfair for the racial narrative within my white subconscious to automatically criminalize those black teenagers.

No one will ever prejudge my own children simply because other white folks act in criminal ways.

It seems like a double standard.

Consider this. Earlier this year, County Commissioner Fred Skillern -- who is white -- joked around with three other political leaders by asking, "Why don't we go back to the Constitution when the only voters were white male property owners?"

Just a little joke. Right?

Now imagine if County Commissioner Warren Mackey -- who is black -- had jokingly told three elected officials that he longed for the Black Panther days when black folks took matters into their own hands ... by any means necessary.

How would Chattanooga respond to that?

Consider the larger picture. In 2010, black males in Tennessee represented nearly half of our state's prison population, according to the Tennessee Department of Correction.

Yet black Tennesseans were only 17 percent of our state's total population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

No one is forced to commit a crime. I believe personal responsibility always comes first. But I also see what has been called "a prison pipeline," a racially biased system that seems to funnel black teens -- at worst -- into prison or -- at best -- into a society where so much health is snuffed out.

Higher rates of disease. Shorter life expectancy. Higher homicide rates. Higher infant mortality. Lower median income. Lower levels of personal wealth. Based on data from 2001-03, black Tennesseans live in vast disproportion to their white neighbors.

Why such disproportion? How responsible am I for that? Do I as a white man benefit from such disadvantage? How much of the solution is the sole responsibility of the black community?

And how presumptuous and patronizing of me to simply write that sentence, to reduce thousands of Chattanooga into a tidy term -- "the black community."

I don't want to look at anyone -- black, brown or white -- and immediately criminalize him or her solely on skin color.

Nor do I want -- in ways known and unknown -- to help contribute to a larger system that suggests those four black teenagers are walking down a road less just or promising than the road I travel.

I don't think you do either. So, what do we do?

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@