- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2005

When Lawrence and Monica Guyot were married nearly 40 years ago, miscegenation was still against the law in the Old Dominion. You would think that some arcane racist attitudes would be gone with the wind by now. Think again.

Last week the Guyots’ smiling faces appeared in a photograph accompanying an article in The Washington Post, written by venerable D.C. writer Charles Cobb Jr., to commemorate the underappreciated life of James Forman, the civil rights stalwart and executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who died last week. A day later Mr. Guyot, who faced death in Mississippi to register black voters, received hate mail from someone who didn’t cotton to his interracial marriage. The next day, Mrs. Guyot, who operates a day care center for low-income and homeless families, found a similarly scary note addressed to her.

Why would she, a reasonably attractive white woman, lay down with a nappy-headed you-know-what, the letter writer asked. “You know racism is alive and well,” Mrs. Guyot said calmly, though she is anything but calm about what some crackpot might do to harm her family or her husband, who frequently appears on national television talk shows to discuss human rights and race relations.

One might think that Mrs. Guyot’s fears are unfounded. This is, after all, 2005 not 1955. Right? Guess again.

Some would have us believe that we are living in the colorblind society that Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of, just as we have grown accustomed to celebrating this hard-won holiday to honor the Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Sorry, but I’d have to ask those fanciful folks, clearly looking through 3-D glasses, what bubble they live in. Sure, blacks and whites and all manner of rainbow-colored people now work together, commute together, sometimes play and worship together and even live under the same roof. Undoubtedly, the fastest-growing segment of the American population may not be Latino, but biracial, multiethnic children.

Still, as Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat from North Carolina, so boldly reminded us during the presidential campaign, we indeed are living in two Americas.

We have not achieved King’s goal of judging people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. The gap between white and black, rich and poor, grows ever wider. And the challenge to bridge the divides becomes more complicated and conflicted as social, racial and class lines collide.

At the heart of America’s conflict are entrenched stereotypes, often heavily reinforced by the press, that allow too many people’s prejudicial attitudes to persist.

I’m not just talking about the traditional white vs. black issues that remain intact. How many of us, in the wake of September 11, fear Muslims or anyone with an Arabic-sounding name? One woman, a university researcher, told me she prepares to be searched each time she flies, simply because of her surname.

How many of us insensitively voice our frustration over not being able to communicate with foreign-born workers? How many immigrants quickly learn to treat blacks as their inferiors by assimilation? Here is the perennial question: Did the dream of man exhibiting peace and humanity die with the dreamer? King’s concept of “fellow man,” and his commitment to bring justice, equality and economic parity to all humanity, appears to have faded in the commercialization of yet another long weekend, just another Monday off for most workers.

We sometimes see a glimmer of hope.

For several years, community organizers have implored caring souls to make King’s holiday a “day on” as opposed to a day off. Some actually forgo shopping to provide service to honor his self-sacrificing legacy by sprucing up schools, tutoring, feeding the homeless or visiting the sick and shut-in.

But disheartening signals abound in our apathy.

Surfing the Web, I came across an unscientific America Online poll that posed three questions: Do you think all Americans are treated equally? Is the civil rights movement at a standstill, reached its goals or reached new lows? If King were alive today, what would he do — frown at our status, smile at our progress or are you not sure?

Of the 97,000 respondents, 82 percent said Americans are treated unequally; 49 percent said the civil rights movement is at a standstill, and 43 percent said King would frown at our status.

Another poll asked whether young people pay too little attention to civil rights or if they just approach civil rights in a different way. Sixty-seven percent of the respondents said too little attention was paid, while 24 percent said young people had a different approach.

No matter our approach, clearly we need to do more than attend Martin Luther King Jr. Day parades, concerts and commemorations. In 2005, we can still work to change laws through protest; we can still change communities through service. But the larger question that remains as evidence by the hate mail the Guyots received last week is, how in the world do we do the really hard work of changing reticent, arcane racist attitudes?

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