Last Friday, the Yale Office of New Haven and State Affairs sent out an email with suggested ways to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Parts of it offered readers opportunities for meaningful ways to commemorate the day, advertising events such as a program on environmental and social justice at the Peabody Museum and a talk by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. ’73. But the second section of the email, in a troubling reference to King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, asks the reader to use the holiday to “Visit local shops and restaurants, all offering great deals to make your dreams come true,” listing sales opportunities at Raggs, J. Crew, Jack Wills, Maison Mathis and other shops. Reading the juxtaposition of commemorative events and sales at high-end boutiques, I wondered whether the email was sent as a joke.
I had never before seen Martin Luther King Jr. Day exploited for the sake of consumerism. Apparently this is not a unique case. In Michigan, one club advertised “Freedom 2 Twerk Martin Luther King Day Weekend Party” and Hennessy’s publicity firm circulated a list entitled “Drinks MLK Jr. Would Be Proud Of.”
Growing up just outside Philadelphia, I was taught that the purpose of MLK day was to commemorate the Civil Rights Movement and to continue civil rights leaders’ fight for a more just society. Phrases such as “Make it a day on, not a day off” or “MLK 365” were frequently used to describe the holiday. Each year, I spent the day volunteering in the Philadelphia MLK Day of Service and listening to community leaders and fellow students speak on how the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. has affected them.
In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. lamented that 100 years after emancipation “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” Dr. King’s dream was not just for racial equality, but also economic equity, a fact that is often ignored, as acknowledging the evils of racism is more socially acceptable than acknowledging the evils of poverty.
Employing Martin Luther King’s dream for commercial purposes is wrong not only because it makes light of the battle for racial justice in our country, but also because it ignores the intolerable levels of poverty that still exist. Over 150 years after emancipation, communities of color continue to suffer from discrimination and bear a disproportionate share of poverty. In 2010, 27.4 percent of black people and 26.6 percent of Hispanics fell below the poverty line, compared to 9.9 percent of non-Hispanic whites. In this context, offering discounts to expensive boutiques that millions of Americans could never even dream to patronize is at odds with the message behind MLK Day.
Flippantly using language from the “I Have a Dream” speech feeds into the post-racial myth that the Civil Rights Movement abolished racism and economic inequity. According to this dangerous mentality, now that we have conquered these societal evils, the dream has lost its meaning. We can even co-opt its language to speak about consumer goods, such as a pair of $90 skinny jeans from a store like Jack Wills that advertises itself as the “Outfitter to the Gentry.” Yet as Martin Luther King Jr. argued in his “I Have a Dream” speech, “1963 is not an end but a beginning.” Over 50 years later, our country still has a long way to go in the fight for racial and economic justice. With recent events such as the murder of Trayvon Martin and the affluenza of Ethan Couch, Dr. King’s dream is just as important and relevant today as it was in 1963.
Contrary to the University email’s assumption, my dream isn’t to get 40 percent off at J. Crew or to go to FroyoWorld. My dream is for an America where all have equitable access to the resources needed to reach their full potential, regardless of race, religion, class, gender or sexual identity.
I am proud of Yale University for honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a time for service and reflection on social justice, and I appreciate the efforts of the Yale Office of New Haven and State Affairs to revitalize our city. Yet the legacy of civil rights activists and their dream for a more equitable America are too important to our country to be sullied by consumerism. Let us remember the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. and carry it throughout the year, dedicating this holiday to social justice, not shopping.
Michael Palisano is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.