Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: Stirring things up for MLK

Jan. 19, 2013 @ 08:01 PM

Just as Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month come around every winter, so do they flush out racism in our midst. Since this nation’s first African-American president was elected four years ago, the phrase “post-racial” has been batted around as a way of talking about progress. It is usually swatted down swiftly from those who know there is nothing “post” about it for some Americans.
Years ago, the first time I wrote about race in a column, a caller admonished me for “stirring things up.” Other callers are much more vehement in their racist ranting, which I would prefer they keep to themselves. No one wants to hear your vile bile, and please use whatever Southern manners you have left to keep it to yourself. If bitter nastiness spews forth toward others, you know they likely have it inside themselves, too. They are unhappy people who will have plenty of explaining to do when they meet Saint Peter.
I’d like to think that people can change. Perhaps those who grew up in the 1950s didn’t think they were bigots then, but looking back on how they’ve changed, come to realize that much progress was made. But for the haters, is there any hope? Maybe not. Maybe they like being mean. Some people are just jerks.
Many, many times for stories around Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I’ve asked people what they think King would think of America today. It’s a significant question. Most of them respond that overall, King would be pleased, but he’d also say there’s more work to do.
There is always more work to do, isn’t there? A lot of prejudice isn’t expressed by the hate spewers, but rather through the thoughts and actions – or inactions – of those who wouldn’t do anything blatant. They just give a feeling. I’ve seen it. As a reporter and the fly on the wall, I watch. I listen. I see the looks some white people give African-Americans. I hear what they say and how they say it. Now, this is a small number of people. But it is there. Because I’ve seen it, because I’m aware of it, sometimes I look for it. Sometimes it’s nothing, sometimes it’s not. I can see why someone might come to expect prejudice, after time and time again of side glances. It exists. I’m talking about it to shine the light on it. I think King would like people to keep stirring things up, rather than sit idly by and pretend everyone’s nice now. Yes, times have changed, but there’s more work to do. If not on the streets, then in hearts and minds.
Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan may be reached at dvaughan@heraldsun.com or 919-419-6563.