About US: What Martin Luther King Jr. and Donald Trump tell us about race and democracy

Candid conversations about identity in 21st-century America
The Washington Post

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Candid conversations about identity in 21st-century America
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Assessing racial progress 55 years after King’s “I have a dream” speech

A folklorist takes us on a tour of the segregated South

I thought I was very Chinese — until I moved to Hong Kong

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Peniel E. Joseph
professor, University of Texas at Austin

On the 55th anniversary of the March on Washington, racial equality is still a work in progress

Tuesday marked the 55th anniversary of the March on Washington that featured the Rev. Martin Luther King’s electrifying “I Have a Dream” speech. That day, which drew a quarter of a million participants of many races to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., instantly transformed the very aesthetics of American democracy.

As a nation our racial progress since the march continues to proceed in fits and starts. Barack Obama’s presidency seemed, for many, the literal fulfillment of King’s dream of multiracial democracy free of racial injustice. America and the entire world proudly basked in the afterglow of Obama’s 2008 election, a victory that signaled — in a mere 45 years — the distance traveled from the nightmare history of Jim Crow and racial terror and violence.

The March on Washington represented perhaps the best public recognition of the intimate relationship between race and democracy during the twentieth century. King himself characterized the gathering as a chance to “make the promise of democracy real” for millions of disenfranchised citizens.

President Trump also recognizes the connection between race and democracy, playing on this history to shape brutally effective rhetorical narratives that appeal to ideas of racial disharmony. For Trump and white supporters of what was called “massive resistance” during the civil rights era, racial progress amounted to a zero-sum game where black advancement could only be achieved through the denigration of white identity, privilege and power.

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In this combination of Associated Press file photos, at left, a mass of demonstrators leaves the Washington Monument for the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, and at right, people line the Reflecting Pool at a rally to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the march in 2013. (AP Photo/File)

The president’s recent tweet describing the South African government’s efforts at land reform as a sinister plot to seize land from white farmers is a virtual talking point among white nationalists, whose presence both domestically and internationally is eroding democratic norms around the world. Paul Krugman notes that the acceleration of government corruption, ethical prevarication and efforts to suppress voting rights have poised America on the verge of “becoming another Poland or Hungary,” where one-party rule replaces genuine democracy.

The United States’ path toward progressive democracy has never proceeded in a linear fashion. The dramatic post-slavery reforms of the Reconstruction era — which included African American voting and citizenship rights — gave way to the “Redeemer South,” which featured an unapologetic embrace of white supremacy, terror and racial violence that gripped the United States well into the first half of the 20th century.

World War II’s efforts to defeat fascism abroad and racial segregation at home promised a New Deal for blacks that only partially came through, stymied by a Cold War political culture that sacrificed hard-won freedoms to defend against the larger perceived threat communism represented.

The civil rights movement’s heroic period, punctuated by the March on Washington, forged a new consensus around American values, arguing that the country’s greatness lay in its ability to reinvent itself beyond the imagination of its original architects.

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Stories of the segregated South

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Lovenia Norris and Nora in Crystal Springs, Miss., 1974. (William R. Ferris Collection/University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

“When I heard Bill Ferris was retiring, I had to make the trip South to visit with him. I’d never met Ferris, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, but I knew his work. As a kid growing up in segregated Mississippi, he had been fascinated with the musicians surrounding him and returned to document them with his records and camera. Now, most of them are gone. But sitting with Ferris, with my recorder running, I felt as if I was one bit closer to meeting Eudora Welty and was standing on that porch with Louis Dotson as he used a single string to turn his house into an instrument.”

— Geoff Edgers, Post national arts reporter

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William R. Ferris. (Hester Magnuson)

Ferris recently retired as a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. See some of his work and hear him talk about some of the people he met and captured in Edgers’s story, “Stories of the segregated South: A folklorist’s promise.”

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An American in Hong Kong

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Marian Liu
freelance writer

“Go back to where you came from,” screamed a door-to-door salesman, slamming the door on me and my mother after we told him we didn’t want to buy his cleaning products.

It was decades ago, when I was in elementary school and the number of immigrant families in my neighborhood was increasing. But what I couldn’t reconcile was that I was already where I came from — Northern California. This country was the only place I had ever lived.

My parents were from China and Taiwan, and although I was born in the United States, I constantly had to tell people where I came from to prove that I was not an outsider. Everyday life reminded me that my culture was not the American mainstream.

Mandarin was my first language, because that’s what my parents spoke at home, so I had to suffer through English as a Second Language classes instead of enjoying recess. I attended Chinese class every weekend, as much for cultural enrichment as language skills, missing Saturday morning cartoons.

Since I lived in the Bay Area, all of my friends were Asian. We snacked on dumplings, Pocky and boba, made fun of our parents’ accents and drove souped-up Hondas. The cool kids in my high school scored perfect SATs and played badminton, not football.

So I thought I was very Chinese — until I decided to move to Hong Kong.

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Marian Liu at the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade in Kowloon, Hong Kong. (Courtesy of Marian Liu)

Some young Chinese Americans during the U.S. recession decided to emigrate to China, where the economy was booming. The motherland offered opportunities that some of us struggled to find in the United States, including stable, well-paying jobs and a society where our appearance wasn’t labeled “other.”

“China, and Asia in general, was on the rise economically,” said Peter Yu, 49, who grew up in San Jose and moved to Hong Kong in 2008, “literally a couple of months away” from losing his Silicon Valley job.

“The opportunities, dynamism and personal heritage connection there appealed to my constant urge to explore, learn, and grow both professionally and personally,” said Yu in an email. On top of that “I wanted to work in Greater China so I could get my ROI from all of those lost Saturday mornings.”

Ironically, our parents had made the opposite journey in search of economic security. Many objected to our return trip, worried that we were no longer Chinese enough.

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Liu’s parents during their visit with her in Hong Kong. (Courtesy of Marian Liu)

But for some, there was an additional draw. As a 2013 China Daily story put it, some immigrants arriving from the United States and other Western countries were in search of “a sense of belonging.”

I left last year to pursue a romantic tale of working as a foreign correspondent. I was finally going “home.”

But when I arrived in Hong Kong, I discovered that I didn’t fit in there, either.

Life was hard. I stuck out. I was yelled at for not understanding the local dialect and glared at for my blue hair. I learned to cope by paying with bigger bills when I couldn’t understand the price, and pointed to other people’s meals when I couldn’t read the menu. I stayed in the more expatriate neighborhoods of Hong Kong or made sure I shopped and ate with a local when I ventured out. Sometimes, it was just easier to stay in.

I spoke conversational Mandarin, not the Hong Kong dialect of Cantonese. When restaurants got my order wrong, they took their frustrations out on me, shouting about how slow I was ordering buns. Since I spoke China’s main dialect, I represented their enemy. I had to go out of my way to explain that I’m American and my parents are from Taiwan — either that or never buy buns there again.

Keep reading this essay

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This is in response to the article [6%: The percentage of white women who support beliefs tied to white identity, solidarity and discrimination. Aug. 24 edition] based on the research of George Hawley of the University of Alabama.

I don’t know if I should fall on the floor laughing at the naivete or Mr. Hawley’s statement that “I was not expecting these numbers.” Or if I should strongly question his own selective denial of what has to be obvious. For every white male that is the face of normal, typical, run of the mill, day-to-day, socially normal and acceptable, racism (much less alt-right — like that is really all that different), there is definitely a grandmother and mother, probably a wife and a good chance of a sister(s), and a daughter(s). How do you think these people reproduce, both in the physical sense, or in the mental sense? And to be located in Alabama and be surprised by these findings? Give me a break.

And for a good number of us women of color, especially African Americans, it is why all of this talk about women solidarity, and the push to support women candidates carte blanc[he], has us giving the side eye. Besty DeVos, Melania [Trump], Sarah Huckabee Sanders, just to name a few, is a caution to never to give a blanket pass based on gender. Too many white women have cried and lied for black men to swing from trees and die.

Tell the Hawleys of the world to do their next research on their own set of blinders.

Karen M. Clark-Keys, PhD
Raleigh, NC

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America soured on my multiracial family
(The Atlantic)

Nail salon brawls & boycotts: Unpacking the Black-Asian conflict in America
(Refinery29)

It’s a small world, after all: Disney’s relationship with Latin America
(Latino USA, NPR)

Rotten Tomatoes adds 200 critics as it yries to be more inclusive
(The New York Times)

Who really owns the “blaccent
(Vulture)

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