Today is the day we celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday and it would be well to focus on why we do. King was a man of great courage who was resolutely committed, not just to racial equality under the law, but to harmony among all the racial factions in America. His commitment to achieving justice under the law for every American was rooted in his Christian faith as his Letter From a Birmingham Jail makes clear, and it was that faith which made him a transformational figure in the history of our nation.
It's sad that though his dream of racial equality has been largely realized - the law no longer permits distinctions between the races in our public life - his dream of racial harmony has not.
One reason it has not is that his dream that his children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character has been inverted so that the color of one's skin is often the only thing that matters, at least in those precincts of our society still in thrall to identity politics.
For example, students are still accepted into colleges and given scholarships on the basis of their race without having to meet the same standards as those with a different skin color. The same is true of civil servants like police and firemen who are often hired and promoted on the basis of test performance, but who sometimes receive preferential treatment based on race. Our Justice Department has refused to prosecute blacks who deny others their civil rights, and any criticism of our out-going president has been interpreted by some as a racist reaction to his skin color rather than reasoned opposition to his policies.
Sadly, people are judged by the color of their skin rather than by the content of their character as much today, perhaps, as at any time in our history, but that's precisely contrary to Martin Luther King's dream.
Nor do I think he would have been happy that we celebrate black history month as if it were somehow separate from American history rather than, as Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby argues, an integral part of American history. The civil rights movement was not merely a black movement, it was an American movement in which the American people realized that we were not living up to the ideals of equality and liberty upon which America was founded. It was a time when the nation realized that we were not living consistently with the deepest convictions we held as Christians, namely that we are all brothers and sisters, children of the same God.
Martin Luther King persistently and bravely held these ideals and convictions before the American people, he refused to allow us to avoid their implications, and repeatedly urged us to live up to what we believed deep in our souls to be true. And the American people, many of whom had never really thought about the chasm between what we professed and what we practiced, responded.
It was an American achievement that involved the efforts and blood of people not just of one race but of all races. Thinking of the great sacrifices and advances of the civil rights era as only a success story of one race is divisive. It carves out one group of people from the rest of the nation for special notice and tends to exclude so many others without whom the story would never have been told.
On Martin Luther King day it would be good for us to try to put behind us the invidious distinctions we continue to make between white and black. It would be good to stop seeing others in terms of their skin color, to give each other the benefit of the doubt that our disagreements are about ideas and policies and are not motivated by hatred, bigotry, or moral shortcomings. It would be good to declare a moratorium on the use of the word "racist," unless the evidence for it is overwhelming, and, in any case, to stop thinking of racism as a sin committed by the majority race only.
Let's resolve to judge each other on the content of our character and of our minds and not on the color of our skin. As long as we continue to see each other through the lens of race we'll keep throwing up barriers between groups of people and never achieve the unity that King yearned for and gave his life for.
There is perhaps no better way to honor Doctor King today than to take the time to read his Letter From a Birmingham Jail and to watch his "I Have a Dream" speech (below) and then to incorporate his words into our own lives as Americans.