Is it Okay for ‘Black’ People to Compare President Obama to MLK? Some Say No…

Yesterday was Inauguration Day. It was also Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. If you missed it, check out my previous post.

Oddly enough, there were a lot of memes that emerged yesterday. They came from everywhere. And, most people posted memes with both President Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr. pictured together. It was almost as if the two were being equated. I think, inside, this made sense to me. So, I barely noticed it. Also, I could understand how many black people, some alive during Jim Crow, could find hope and esteem in yesterday’s proceedings. But, as I got ready for bed last night, I saw this meme on a Facebook friend’s page.

And, because I know this person’s background as a Palestinian American who has witnessed firsthand the tragedy and disgusting nature of warring in the Middle East, I thought to shrug it off. But, upon reading the comments, I was taken aback by the dialogue between my friend and another young lady whose heritage appears to originate in the same region (assumed Iranian from her name).

Young Lady: “it’s so annoying — so many people i know, especially black people, have photos equating MLK and Obama…it’s like yo…um really? lol”

Friend: “It’s offensive”

Young Lady: “it really is I’m like really…REALLY?!!?! go read and stop watching youtube videos”

So, at this point I was intrigued. I had never heard anyone make the case AGAINST comparing MLK and President Obama before. So, I simply asked why it was offensive. Here are some of the answers I got back.

Young Lady: “Obama drops drones on children, MLK fought for people to have civil rights/safety…it’s sort of like an oxymoron”

Me: “But MLK was never the President right? And didn’t Obama inherit the war? Also, you don’t think they represent similar things for the black community? Leadership? Transcendence over inequality? Etc? I am just asking because I have never seen one race of people offended by another race’s political figures in such a way before.”

Young Lady: “Obama didn’t inherit Somalia, Yemen or Pakistan…he started all of those things and does a great job at bombing poor innocent children. If you care at all, take a look at some of the deaths you can hold the president accountable for:

To some people they may represent what you described but in reality Obama is White [in the political sense]. He has not done anything to advance the status of communities of color in the U.S. and operates within the same system of oppression that MLK, Malcolm X, and SO MANY others fought against, not within.

Lastly, [friend’s name] and I identify as people of color and are not of the same “race” — race is a social construct that is not clearly defined– but our struggles as people of color are one of the same. So MLK is as important to us as people of color as he may be to the Black community.”

Young Lady: “Although I must add that I am not black and do not live the black experience in America. Nonetheless, in my opinion and in many others’, including many black people, Obama is not what the black community or other communities of color need.”

What  was very interesting to me about this was that this young woman immediately called out black people in her original assertions. However, when asked to expound upon that identification, she turned it around on me as if I was noting race. I think she was attempting to ‘school’ me. But, I still didn’t get an answer back about why black people should not be comparing two of their own political leaders in reverence and admiration. She used the straw man ‘I know black people who say the same stuff’ argument so I was starting to lose hope.

Yet, I continued…

Me: “So you noted “black” people. Though I understand the bounds of race, you implied its significance (not me). I will not contend each and every point you’ve listed because you come off as really defensive when i was genuinely just asking a question.

But, what I will say is that denigrating a public figure for actions whether inherited or not is fine. For you. But taking offense with another’s right to reverence and esteem is wholly different.”

Me: “Whether you are one race or another or none at all does not mean anything to me or the question I asked. And your closing argument deviates from your original point. I was simply wondering why a collective esteem with the first black President (because he identifies as black therefore he is) and likening to another black figure offends you personally. You haven’t answered yet.

Being angry about what he has done internationally doesn’t change what he represents to a group. You are enforcing your value system on a group of people to which you proclaim not to belong. I just find that interesting.”

Me: “You guys don’t think MLK would vote for Obama? Obama is the manifestation of his “I have a dream”…speech. He is the dream incarnate. You are both arguing politics while I am asking about persona. See the difference there?”

Me: “I am not upset in the slightest [friend’s name] just asking questions as I have never seen anyone offended by MLK comparisons outside of the black community.I agree that MLK would cry over the status of oppressed and abused persons in the world today. And it is likely he would denounce some of the President’s actions. But I do believe that his deeper goal would be more tha[n] political action alone. I think he would be proud to look upon the nation’s first black president.”

In the end, the conversation spiralled down into three main points: Obama bad. MLK good. I no like Obama and MLK compare. And, I agree with the concerns about Obama’s actions in the Middle East, Gitmo, and a host of other things. He definitely isn’t perfect. But, I have several contending issues here:

  1. Since when does holding any particular political stance make one “politically white?” I mean, what race am I politically? Samoan? I have no idea. But for some reason, this seemed like a valid defense to this young lady.
  2. How do we know how Martin Luther King, Jr. would have behaved if elected into office? This argument ignores the bloody wars we have been entangled in for over 50 years across the globe. To say that President Obama hasn’t inherited them is extremely obtuse. Did I miss something? Was MLK the President at some point? I must have missed that.
  3. Why does a President (of any color) have to come into office with the sole intention of catering to people of color? NOTE: Presidents don’t make or pass laws. I am not sure people know that but watching Conjunction Junction: School House Rocks! in the nineties taught me how a bill becomes a law and all the President has to do is sign it. That’s it. So, what exactly should he be doing that he isn’t doing?
  4. How can two, nonblack, people criticize black people outright for whom they (we) choose to or don’t choose to admire similarly? To me, it is a totally asinine liberty that folks shouldn’t believe they have.  Additionally, is this not just a case of differing value systems? Maybe black people see a value in the use of drones but haven’t experienced them personally so they don’t feel the same way these young women do. That is political right? Not racial. But, to call out a race of people, who have been historically oppressed in this country and who admire the two preeminent black leaders of our time, as offensive, to me, seeks to shame a group of folks who have nothing to be ashamed of.

Eventually, the two young women went into a fawning frenzy over Cornel West and posted the video below (which I had already seen).

To cap off the conversation, my “friend” offered me this.

Friend: “Jenn, I can try Spanish or Arabic if the above wasn’t clear? I agree with Dr. West’s sentiments exactly. I don’t know how much more clear I need to be. My offense isn’t that black people make the reference. My offense is in the comparison, period. No matter who makes it. So no, the unit of analysis isn’t black people. I’m not sure why you are trying to make it about race when it clearly isn’t. Everyone has been making the comparison not just black people. Just because you don’t agree with me doesn’t mean you have to play dumb like you don’t understand the argument I’m making. It isn’t just a political take on the matter. Martin Luther King Jr. would challenge the current policies under the Obama administration just like he challenged racist and segregationist polices in the past. To me they are two completely different individuals. Do they have some things in common? Sure. But that doesn’t make them the same. Quiet frankly, MLK (despite some of his mistakes) was so much better.”

Now I get it. King was just so…just so much…better. So, the issue isn’t black people needing to read and stop watching YouTube? (Ironically, their answer pointed me to a Youtube video). It was simply that President Obama needs to get himself some betterness and up his MLK game. Riiiight…

After all this, I felt like I had infiltrated on their “White Chicks” moment. You know, the scene in the movie where the fake white chicks (Shawn and Marlon Wayans) are in the car with their friends and they all agree that it is okay to drop the n-word since there’s no one around? Yeah, that moment. The intention was to slide a little racist comment in about black folk because the environment seemed safe. Well, their bad. Now it’s here on BB&W (ish happens).

Mind you, I never brought up race. So, here is my question: Why would any other group of people have legitimate reason to be offended by black people comparing President Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr.? Is there a functional argument?

Please someone. School me.

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