With MLK Day now over, and most people's reflection safely behind them, it is time to return our thoughts to matters of today's concerns. But the lessons of MLK are not historical benchmarks in our society; they resonate even today. One area they seem prominent is in the growing gap between wealthy and poor.
As Paul Krugman notes in this week's editorial, it is very likely that MLK would be very disheartened by our country's current system. We have a socio-economic ladder that has become increasingly difficult to climb, a wider and ever-increasing chasm between rich and poor that can't be traversed, and fewer people able and willing to challenge this status quo.
Part of the problem is that those who have engineered this gap see it as being an important part of America. It is the challenge gap, the way for those at the bottom to prove themselves worthy of being at the top. They will cite the prodigies, the few lucky ones who have stepped out of poverty to become successful, and use them as the benchmark, saying that if one can do it, all can do it. This is like saying that, since one man can build a particle accelerator and understand how it works, anybody can.
The other mindset is that the gap doesn't exist, or at least not in the proportions being reported. This view essentially disregards reams of data from the census office, ignores historical evidence to suggest that the gap was not always this way, and instead relies on the comfortable but misleading notion that those at the bottom got there due to their own laziness and those at the top deserve it.
What MLK demanded was that these views be changed. To suggest that those at the bottom are benefiting from a wealth gap is the same logic that was used when segregation was supported in the South; it benefited everyone, including African Americans. And to suggest that such disparity doesn't exist, or is the fault of those who have nothing is to disregard the causes of this gap, the reasons it exists, its immense impact on American life, and who it is the engineers its continued growth. Is it the fault of the poor that their jobs are taken away, or that their homes have suddenly jumped in value? Is it the fault of the person who has grown up poor and without services that they continue that trend with their own family? Time and time again, we see that the cycles of society go on. The poor who are not helped end up raising children in the same conditions. The cycles need to be broken. It is time.
As Krugman asserts, this is our new Civil Rights Movement. It is our chance to stand up and demand livable wages, good jobs, and opportunities. It is our time to demand that the gap be closed, that the middle class be awoken, and that our society becomes the center of greatness once again. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's challenged what was accepted, what was understood, and what was agreed to by society at large. Now, we have to do the same. We have to challenge the idea that the poor are poor by their own actions, that helping them is a waste, and that those at the top are there because of their own intrinsic value to society. They are no more or less human than anyone else. They are Americans, like you and I. Nothing more, and nothing less. That they are at the top may be due to hard work, or family, or luck, or fate. Those who earn their fortunes have every right to keep it. but those who are a victim of circumstance should have the knowledge that they, too, can rise to bigger and better things if they put in that effort. Today, that promise is an illusion. It is wasted. No one believes in it. We have to show that it can be done, that hard work can pay off, and the only way to do that is to even out the playing field, revitalize our society, and bring us back into harmony.