Steinberg: Miracle of Martin Luther King remains, points the way

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Martin Luther King Day is upon us, again, and me without a card or anything….

See, that’s the problem. There’s no upside for a white guy to talk about race. It’s all risk and no reward. At worst, you end up making some inadvertent slip and lose your job.

At best? You’re still a white guy commenting on race. What could you say that would possibly matter? Why bother? “Sorry, not my table. Mary will be serving you today….”

So … nothing about race here. Just another regular, not-about-race column. The 1958 UN Law of the Sea conference; how many Chicagoans understand its implications …?

Oh, hell, in a for a dime, in for a dollar.


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I was walking my cute little dog through the lily-white suburb of Northbrook (black population, 0.6 percent) thinking about race Friday morning. What to say? There are more black people on the Metra Milwaukee North line in recent years? A good sign! There used to be none, and now there are some. And in the street — a black kid on his bicycle. A black guy living on the next block. We’ve stopped together on the corner of Shermer and Walters, across from the train station, and I’ve looked at him, expectantly, but he never looks at me. So whatever hale, awkward white guy greeting I would blurt out just curdles in my mouth. “Welcome to suburbia, black person! Allow me to vent my innocent white guy goodwill upon you!”

Better that he doesn’t look up. Besides, I wouldn’t dare spin that as progress. Not with videos of cops shooting black people emerging with such regularity it might as well be a new TV series. “Gunned Down!” Seeing progress in my neck of the woods is like saying, “Hey, Jimmy Butler makes $19 million a year! So what are you talking about, economic discrepancies?”

The truth is, Jimmy Butler’s salary included, the median income for a black family is 60 percent that of a white family. Their average net worth is $5,000, about 1/20th of the median white family’s.

The sticking point is: “Why?” The common if rarely stated white perspective is: because they’re bad people, waving off the advantages that life showers on them, listening to their rap, not putting their shoulders to the grindstone and doing the hard honest work that we hard-working, honest white folks do automatically.

I should hasten to point out, that is not my perspective. I do not believe it. Biologically, people are the same. So back to “Why?” Why does my boy sit under a lotus tree reading poetry in French while black kids his age who grew up 30 miles southeast slump in beige DOC scrubs in Cook County Jail tattooing each others’ necks? Poor choices on their part? Should have checked off the box by “private college in California” instead of “private cell, 26th and California”?

No. The economic system put in place long ago haunts us still. The real chains are gone. The virtual chains when it comes to health care, education, jobs, savings, the legal system, are strong and self-perpetuating. If you want to see how history carries down to this day, consider this: most African-Americans, 55 percent, live in the South. Still, despite the Great Migration. Why? Because that is where their ancestors were brought as slaves. Mississippi is 38 percent African American. Illinois is 15 percent.

Lots of white folks see those videos and don’t see a teen being killed for the crime of running from a cop. They think: “you know, if you stopped and bowed your head and mumbled apologies instead of fleeing, maybe the nice officer wouldn’t be obligated to shoot you.” Think I’m exaggerating?  “How about reminding protesters that Laquan would be alive today if he obeyed the law and stopped running away?” nice Mrs. G. writes, including her full name, Palos Hills address and email. “How else could an officer stop him except to shoot to protect the community from a possible criminal on the loose?”

Consider it done, Mrs. G., and thanks for the perfect summary of how whites view their black fellow citizens on Martin Luther King Day 2016: “Possible criminals on the loose.”

I don’t want to end on that note. I am an optimist by nature, another white privilege. There is a lovely poem by Lucille Clifton that ends:

come celebrate with me that everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.

The United States is 13.6 percent black. And despite all our unimaginably awful history and stuck-in-trouble present, the miracle of Martin Luther King, American hero, remains, pointing the way.

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