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The End of White America?: Teddy Bear Icons and Magical Negroes

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"Is it The End of White America?," The Atlantic asks this month.

As if. Not even close. But The Atlantic's smart, timely article raises incisive questions about race in these heady times.

Today is just the time to give the King holiday an extreme makeover.

The black-white racial divide that Obama personally bridges, and that Dr. King died to erase, has lost its all-consuming power. Since Latinos are now the largest minority in our multiracial society, dwelling on America's "black-white divide" is as deluded as banking on a two-party system in the Netherlands or Spain.

We're not in a post-racial moment. We're in a multi-racial moment. That moment, personified by a changing poly-racial nation, undermines the creaking nostalgia draining many King holiday celebrations and the over-wrought, contrived worth some people attach to Obama's blackness.

"Already, Texas, California, New Mexico, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia are majority minority," Obama has pointed out, meaning that whites are a "minority" and that "racial minorities" collectively form a "majority." Obama keenly understands that he is taking the helm of an America whose increasing pluralism and mixed populations are turning the notions of "majority" and "minority" upside down and inside out.

Besides, 55 percent of the U.S. population (including me) was born after King's assassination. The majority of the country bared no first-hand witness to his life's work: The Ebenezer Baptist preacher is as much an abstraction as the abolition movement or the Normandy landings.

This week's icons share more in common than cocoa skin. King's genius was most evident in his creation of a movement much larger than himself. (Ditto for Obama.) King spoke some of the most mellifluous speeches of his era. (So does Obama.) But King's rhetoric was the palliative soundtrack of a vast grassroots movement that was complex, sophisticated, and forward-looking. (True for Obama.) When we forget King's movement--both in the breadth of change it demanded and in the thousands of faces and hearts dedicated to the cause--we reduce an experience, from which we still have much to learn, into the sedative mythology of one individual. (Same goes for Obama and his grassroots.)

Powerful people trip over each other to celebrate Dr. King's racial tonic because doing so is the deftest way to sidestep the harder topic: his blunt calls against poverty and war. The King we're peddled in news clips and ad is a soft flicker of the true activist's dynamism and dissent. King's Teddy Bear iconography smooths the thorny substance of his dream.

So goes for Obama. Some whites dismissively pigeon him as a "good black." (Chip Saltsman, the ex-Huckabee campaign chief running to chair the GOP, declined to apologize for circulating a holiday CD to RNC honchos featuring the Rush Limbaugh song, "Barack the Magic Negro.") Saltsman is hardly alone. Even mainstream pols and media focus on Obama's nice racial karma as if to defang him and to deflate his more subversive and ambitious intentions.

At this milestone moment, the media and pols should not pull a King on Obama, lionizing him as a symbolic figure to obscure his more demanding, controversial goals.

For his part, Obama must follow through on those bold intentions and skillfully outflank Congressional and Wall Street conventional wisdom, which seek to cement the status quo.

38 million Americans live in poverty. Present circumstances may push another 10.3 million people into poverty in just eighteen months. On the eve of Obama's inauguration, we need to update the King commemoration.

Multiracial America is in more need of an unflinching brand of self-examination than an empty brand of racial therapy.