You can hear the story here: http://www.npr.org/2011/01/17/132942453/Whats-The-New-Civil-Rights-Movement
Today is the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Martin Luther King, Jr federal holiday. And in honor of Dr. King, host Michel Martin talks with a diverse group of provocative intellectuals to try to answer the question: What is America’s next civil rights challenge. Joining the discussion are Gustavo Arellano, columnist for the OC Weekly, Kai Wright , editor of ColorLines.com, and Wajahat Ali, a lawyer and a playwright who wrote the critically-acclaimed play called “The Domestic Crusaders.”
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I’m Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
But first, we’re thinking about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. on this, the 25th anniversary of the first Martin Luther King Day holiday. And we wanted to think about the question, what is America’s next civil rights battle? So we’ve gathered a diverse group of panelists.
Joining us, Wajahat Ali is a writer, lawyer and playwright who wrote the critically-acclaimed play called “The Domestic Crusaders.” It’s about a day in the life of a Pakistani-Muslim-American family in the wake of 9/11.
Also with us, Kai Wright. He’s a journalist who reports on race, sexuality and health. He’s the editor of Colorlines.com and the author of “Drifting Toward Love: Black, Brown, Gay, and Coming of Age on the Streets of New York.”
And Gustavo Arellano. He’s a syndicated columnist who writes the column “Ask a Mexican” for the OC Weekly. He’s also published a book by that name and he’s also a frequent contributor to our weekly Barbershop segment. Welcome to all of you. Thank you all so much for joining us.
Mr. WAJAHAT ALI (Playwright, “The Domestic Crusaders”): Thank you. Thank you.
Mr. KAI WRIGHT (Author, “Drifting Toward Love: Black, Brown, Gay, and Coming of Age on the Streets of New York”): Thanks for having us.
MARTIN: Now, we were speaking earlier with Lonnie Bunch, the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. And one of the reasons we’ve called each of you is that you’re all young and none of you was alive at the height of the civil rights movement of the ’60s. Or at least, you know, you weren’t grown. You weren’t grown folks.
So, I wanted to ask each of you if that movement is something that has some direct meaning to you now. Some lived meaning to you now. And, Gustavo, I’ll just start with you.
Mr. GUSTAVO ARELLANO (Columnist, OC Weekly): It absolutely does. Just reading the battles of the civil rights movement, through the whole epic, really, of starting from the South up to the North, through Chicago, on the West Coast, it’s absolutely amazing. And as a reporter who has the social activist bent into him, it’s inspiring to see the tales of the common folks, or the common man and woman going out there and bravely confronting stereotypes, bravely confronting racism, bravely confronting all the hate that was out there, such vicious hate.
And more importantly, for me, as a child of Mexican immigrants and as somebody basically Mexican, to me it was amazing to see all those coalitions, all those groups, all these people fighting for those same struggles. A lot of the legal fights especially, that’s what I’m more familiar with, housing covenant fights, the school desegregation fights, most of the important legal victories originally started with Mexican-American families fighting for those rights.
And the NAACP and those amazing lawyers like Thurgood Marshall, Loren Miller, seeing these cases and later on citing them as precedent for the much more famous cases that the rest of the United States rightfully remembers.
MARTIN: Wajahat, what about you?
Mr. ALI: You know, just coincidentally, we were at the NBC studios a half hour ago and we saw photos of the marches and protests put on by Martin Luther King and it still resonates with, I think, all groups here in America. It’s iconic. It’s the vision and it’s the reality of forcing America to live up to its ideals. And to ensure that America really, you know, keeps to its promise of having those freedoms and democracies and civil liberties for all people regardless of your religion or gender or race.
We could look to that generation and we could look to that multicultural coalition that existed in that time and it gives kind of a road map for the present and for the future.
MARTIN: Kai, I’m particularly interested in hearing you talking about this whole question of how much is owed and I want to actually hear each of our guests talk about this whole question of how much is owed to the past versus how much time we should spend looking to the future.
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, you know, the past informs the present and the future. So I don’t think it’s an either/or thing. One of the significant things that’s gone on the course of my lifetime – so I’m a 37-year-old African American – and in the course of my lifetime, I have lived a real effort to rewrite and wash away a lot of the stuff that the civil rights movement was about. And to reframe it in a different kind of way by the right that leaves us in a weird conversation around race today where everything’s about individuals and how individuals interact with each other instead of about the structures that King talked about.
But I do want to say that as an African-American, you know, I could get choked up very quickly talking about the way in which the civil rights movement impacts my day to day life. You know, I was raised by people who lived through it. And it’s impossible for me to have a tangible understanding of the world that they navigated and the bravery and the courage and just the remarkable day to day acts. Never mind the leaders. The remarkable acts of my grandfather going to work at an all-white military plant every day and still managing to keep his eye on the prize of trying to get resources for his family.
MARTIN: You’ve all talked about the way in which, you know, the struggles of one group has informed the struggles of others. Some people feel that too often we’re into a competitive suffering contest now. And so can you talk about that a little bit?
Mr. WRIGHT: What history tells us is that one of the best tools of people who wish to oppress is to divide and conquer. And so it’s, you know, it’s great to have young black men angry at young Latino men about jobs and fighting with each other instead of fighting the folks who hold all the resources. It’s great to have working class white folks scared to death of Muslim Americans every time they go to the airport instead of thinking about the ways in which our foreign policy makes us on faith.
And it’s great to have this conversation that pits gay civil rights against civil rights for African-Americans as though they’re mutually exclusive or somehow in combat with one another. In fact, you know, some of the best most articulate and loudest voices for gay civil rights have been the folks who led the African-American civil rights movement.
MARTIN: But the fact is, people do have different outcomes in life and there are different opportunities and things that happen, in part, well, that’s an argument too. But we do – we can look now at issues like sexuality, gender, ethnicity and see different outcomes for different people at different times in different situations.
For example, when we talk about the achievement gap, we’re talking about blacks and Latinos. We’re not talking about whites and Asians. So the question I would have for each of you is, how do you talk about difference and, you know, what some people consider divide and conquer, some people just consider just facts on the ground that just have to be grappled with. So I’d like to ask, how do you talk about the things that are different and the things that are the same? Wajahat, do you want to take that?
Mr. ALI: Sure. I mean, there exists a minority suffering contest where someone complains and whines, another group says, oh, you guys complain about racial profiling. You Muslims complain about racial profiling, well, try being black and Latino and driving in L.A. I think that thematically that you have to look back, take a deep breath and see that, OK, every, you know, minority group or every ethnic group or every group in America has a unique story.
But at the same time, we belong to a multicultural fabric. And there are these values that we all share and that if you really want to get something done, we have to look at the big picture and see that there’s commonalities. And our multicultural coalition has always, always, always been the most successful in advancing not only our individual rights, but we also help push things forward for everybody else.
MARTIN: It’s Martin Luther King Day and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
And we’re talking about what’s the next civil rights challenge America is facing? That was just playwright Wajahat Ali that you heard. We’re also talking with journalist Kai Wright and columnist Gustavo Arellano. Gustavo, what about you?
Mr. ARELLANO: Each group ultimately, as Wajahat said, all those problems, they do connect in one way or another. So, OK, African-American and Latino children, they’re the ones who are suffering under the achievement gap, but the reform for education is not just going to affect them, it’s going to affect everyone. And not all Asian-Americans, by the way, are the model minority society may stereotype them as. Cambodians and Hmongs and the Laotians actually suffer. That they have those same unfortunate dropout rates and also going to college rates as Latinos and African-Americans.
So to view those bigger pictures as pertaining just to one particular group, it is a dangerous thing. But that’s the great thing about civil rights activists. No matter what the struggle is, at least the hope would be that they know that their struggle is one part of a bigger picture that involves everyone.
MARTIN: What do you think – go ahead, Kai.
Mr. WRIGHT: I think to bring it back to King, it’s important, too, because it makes our nation stronger.
Mr. ARELLANO: Yeah.
Mr. ALI: Right.
Mr. WRIGHT: This was what his thought really was. I mean, this was at the core of King’s politics and his messages that all of these versions of oppression, right, those things come together to make America weak. And that, you know, if we don’t deal with the ways in which preventable diseases spread amongst the poor folks, particularly amongst African-Americans, then our health care system will be very expensive. We have to deal with these things in order to have a strong nation. So everybody is at stake in all of these.
MARTIN: Well, how do you interpret Martin Luther King, Jr.’s challenge today?
Mr. WRIGHT: I think King’s challenge today, what would be most relevant for King’s challenge today is really the economic justice question. I think that’s what he was getting at towards the end of his career. And I think that’s a question that is really present as a civil rights issue now. I mean, when you look at the unemployment rates in communities of color, you look at something, like, unemployment rates amongst college graduates and African-American college graduates are twice as – the unemployment is twice as high as the national average.
The question of economic justice and the question of how resources are divided amongst society, that I think is a defining issue that King would be spending a lot of time on.
MARTIN: Wajahat, what do you think?
Mr. ALI: The core message for him to reaffirm that civil liberties for one group is civil liberties for all groups. I’d like to go off of Kai’s point. I think he’s right on point. Economic justice, it’s an untold tragedy that is affecting all people, regardless of race or religion. I also think he would tackle immigration. It was just very just saddening to see the DREAM Act fail.
And I think the emergence of Muslim-Americans – just like the Japanese-Americans, just like gays and lesbians, just like African-Americans – I mean, what’s the role of Muslim-Americans? Are they perpetual suspects? Are they aliens? Are they strangers for life? Or, also, they’re neighbors. Are they American? I think these are some of the questions that would probably be brought up.
Mr. ARELLANO: It’s easy nowadays to remember King as a postage stamp, as somebody who says: Let’s not judge each other by the color of our skins, but rather by the content of our character. That’s an ideal that I would think everybody wants to believe can happen in this country. But economic justice, that’s something that’s much more difficult, because that goes right to the core of what this country was founded on, which was on the type of capitalism that will favor the well-to-do and look down upon whatever the latest group to exploit is.
King would’ve been at the forefront of that. Of course, a couple years after King’s assassination, that’s when you started seeing the rise of Cesar Chavez and the labor movement, trying to get into that. That’s where King was moving toward the end of his life. And that’s, frankly, when people started souring on King. And also, the Martin Luther King, Jr. that was against American empire. He was starting to criticize the war in Vietnam, and people weren’t liking him after that.
If he would’ve continued on that, I think he would’ve been much less fondly remembered by some segments of our society, and definitely not lionized by people who warp his message.
MARTIN: Well, what do you think, then – as a closing thought from each of you. What do you think should be the focus of civil rights activism now? And who wants to start? Kai, do you want to start?
Mr. WRIGHT: I don’t see how we move forward as a country on anything until we develop a sane immigration policy. But I also don’t see how we move forward as a country without dealing with the increasing concentration of wealth in a small group of people. There’s, unfortunately, not a shortage of issues.
I think what’ll be interesting over the next couple of years is to watch what happens with gay civil rights. I think it’s a really interesting turning point with the passage of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” with the sort of unified frustration with the Democratic Party and the gay community. And what will happen from there and what those things will mean I think will be an interesting couple of years (unintelligible).
MARTIN: How are you going to spend your time, Kai, in the next couple of years? What is your focus?
Mr. WRIGHT: I’ll be writing a lot about the housing crisis and a lot about the ways in which we have structured an economy that makes it impossible for African-Americans, in particular, to prosper. That’s – I think that’s something to explore.
MARTIN: Wajahat, what about you?
Mr. ALI: What we have to do is pretty much narrow it down to rights, freedoms and liberties for us, for everyone, and stories and narratives that tell our story, that humanize us by us, for everyone. And I think that’s pretty much what I do and what I will plan to do as both a writer and an attorney. At the same time, as long as the world is mad, a writer with a good conscience has a pen as a weapon.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ALI: And so, you know, you fight against racial profiling. You fight against gender discrimination. You fight against economic disparity. You feel kind of like superhero, right? And you put on your cape and you try to put on the best fight you can and do the best that you can.
MARTIN: Gustavo, what about you?
Mr. ARELLANO: Any, you know, to paraphrase Tom Joad, anywhere where there’s a group suffering some sort of oppression or other, I’m going to be there – not only marching alongside them, but also fighting the fight. And more specifically, in my role, is trying to serve as that bridge – at least with my community, specifically Mexicans and Mexican immigrants – trying to get activists or people to care for our causes and, frankly, for my people to care for other causes.
And to me, I mean, it’s happened with me. When I was younger, I’m ashamed to admit, but I was virulently anti-gay. Me of 15 years ago would’ve never ever imagined even talking about gay marriage. But eventually, I had a revelation. I had a revelation that if here I am whining about how Mexicans, how we can’t get amnesty, how we can’t get the DREAM Act, if I don’t see my struggle as the same struggle of Muslims being racially profiled, of gays and lesbians trying to fight for marriage equality, if I don’t see this as part of the same struggle, then frankly, I’m a hypocrite, and frankly, I don’t deserve my struggle to have success.
So now I’m proud to say I am marching alongside all those folks, and more importantly, trying to talk to those people in my community who unfortunately still have retrograde views and try to show them that we are part of that same struggle. And if we can’t fight for other people’s issues, then people do not deserve to fight for our issues.
MARTIN: And how are you going to be spending your time, Gustavo? What’s the next cause for you? How are you living the movement in the years ahead?
Mr. ARELLANO: The most important cause for me right now is the passage of the DREAM Act. The DREAM Act, unfortunately, failed in Congress. You know, I have so many friends, relatives, people that I know who have lived their entire life in this country, you know, culturally American, but unfortunately, they were not born in this country. And so they can – they have to live under the specter of deportation every single day.
And there are some people in the immigrants’ rights movements who don’t like the DREAM Act, who’d rather want a blanket amnesty. And here’s where I do take the inspiration from civil rights movements. I tell them that the civil rights movement was not, you know, somebody signs a bill, and that’s that. No, it was decades of small victories. You have school desegregation. Then you started going after housing covenants. Then you had to start going against work discrimination. It’s all incremental. That’s how I see the DREAM Act. So that’s the one I’m fighting for, specifically.
Again, anywhere where there is problems – and in my neck of the world here in Orange County, California, of course, if there’s ever any groups that do suffer any discrimination, myself and the OC Weekly, we’re always there to help out those folks.
MARTIN: Gustavo Arellano is a syndicated columnist who writes the column, “Ask a Mexican” for the OC Weekly. He’s also published a book by that title. He joined us from Costa Mesa, California.
Wajahat Ali is a writer, lawyer and playwright who wrote the critically play called “The Domestic Crusaders.” It’s also available in book form, as well.
Kai Wright is the editor of Colorlines.com, which covers cultural and social issues involving racial justice. He’s also a fellow at the Nation Institute. Kai and Wajahat were both with us from our studios in New York. Thank you all so much for speaking with us, and Happy Martin Luther King Day to all of you.
Mr. ARELLANO: Gracias. Thank you.
Mr. ALI: Thank you.
Mr. WRIGHT: Thank you.