one more bit on king, and then i'm done. we need to think about how king has functioned as an image, an icon, a symbol, and so on, how 'king' has circulated, what he or his picture or his words mean at any given place and time. it is a well-nigh universal american image, as common an image as we have, less problematic even than the flag. i have written a lot and perhaps intend to write more about 'unconscious racism'. let's say i believe in it in a pretty extreme way. i think it is incredibly obvious on the ground: in the gap between how we white folks think about ourselves/what we say, and the structural racism that persists (income levels, education and educational segregation, incarceration rates, residential segregation, police violence, and so on). it's been decades since i talked to a white person who considered him/herself a racist. it's like reality is a hallucination. black people must find that annoying.
well, the image of king has a role here, a use: really, anti-immigrant activists quote him as a shelter against the charge of bigotry. but just the average white liberal person - who harbors all the attitudes that make the situation, who is still looking for some white experts to tell black people how to remediate their pathologies, still wanting to oppress black people to make them free, still thinking basically racially all the time - takes shelter in king. we march to selma, which is sort of like, is a wan reflection of, marching to selma. of course we already agreed with every sentence, and really felt it when oprah was crucified in the street. we all hated the cracker segregationist police chiefs and governors. and were we to run into cracker segregationists, we'd know what to say. but guess what? today's cracker segregationist only wants to judge people by the cointent of their characters. we have met the cracker segregationist and he is us. king (among others) taught white folks how to talk.
if king's image now is a double-edged sword, that is not king's fault, putting it mildly. he aspired to universal brotherhood, universal values. but any rhetoric, any image, is subject to unpredictable circulation, and those tropes have remarkable possibilities for ... problematic appropriation, because anyone can potentially nod along, and is meant to. king's image can easily be deracinated, im-paled. but then an examination or critique of how a particular image or sentence is being appropriated is always possible too, and people are always re-radicalizing king as well.