03/20/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ritually Devaluing MLK, Institution Style

Martin Luther King Day always reminds me of college, where I was first introduced to mandatory selective participation in a major institution's efforts to show they care about "multiculturalism" and "diversity".

At the Big Ten school I attended, extracurricular activities were less about layering a CV -- at least for me -- and more about having something to do in the meandering Midwest. As a so-called "student leader" my responsibilities brought me to the attention of the kind of people who were in charge of MLK Day festivities: the student union president, the Office of the Dean, and the board-types whose meetings that I attended were bulleted with phrases like "raising the university's profile," "raising funds," and "grazing the Latino Student Center to build a parking lot for the College of Law". Just your typical early-age reinforcement of the reality of institutional values in general and university priorities in specific.

As a rare commodity in the Midwest, I learned early on what post-9-11 minorities later came to know as "random selection." Somehow, I was always kindly invited to participate in one or another MLK Day celebratory event. More than once, "kindly invited" was actually just "required to attend". And, like a cog in the wheel of farcical motions, I would find myself on this auspicious day -- hours after submitting copy on my investigative report on the funneling of student union funds toward dismantling minority houses like the Africa House for above mentioned priority parking necessities -- standing on a stage with the gaggle of other minorities that were somehow located on that campus, holding a candle for a man who I believe would have been dismayed at best to observe the ritualistic devaluation of what he stood for and what he died to express.

Hence, every year, as my knowledge and readings of Martin Luther King expanded, and I realized more and more that he was not the compliant antithesis to Malcolm X which we were repeatedly taught in the American education system from as early as elementary school, my discomfort grew. MLK Day, at least at my university, seemed like a shameless promotion of the university's limited success at attracting a quota of certain kinds of minorities. On that day, I was just added to the mix to diversify the diversity, so to speak.

Years later, working at a human rights organization, I had flashbacks of college MLK Day when during a -- you guessed it -- fundraising meeting, the head of fundraising -- not an assistant or an intern, but the head -- greeted me with that PTA-meeting robo-smile that frightens new immigrants to America and haunts anyone who ever attended elementary school here, and chirruped about last night's little fundraising soiree and how wonderful it was that I'd been there and "one of them could speak to them so hopefully that will translate into real money".

I couldn't believe what I'd just heard and waited to see if it was a mistake -- that I hadn't just been treated like the perfect token for a fundraising effort to raise the profile of an organization whose merits I was increasingly doubting. "These people are usually hard to get money out of because they don't trust someone like me" she added.

MLK would have been dismayed at best -- at the glaring failure of too many American institutions to sincerely educate their staff on the values that King strove so hard to engender in our society: that this country belongs to all Americans and that all Americans are equal.

More importantly, in the context of the Internet age where people worldwide are increasingly better connected, King's last years were focused on educating everyday people about how they can influence governments to do the right thing -- that fighting a senseless war in a far off land, for instance, is just one of many terrible situations which people like you and me can impact and stop, even if our governments invest so much in convincing us not to.

King wasn't shaken by the theatrics of institutional professions of humanity and he wouldn't have been shaken by what happens in far too many institutions across America today. He would have known that a shameless display of solidarity on MLK Day at a university is for the sake of the institution, not the people. That a human rights organization whose fundraising strategy is to treat its minority staff members as tools for squelching wealthy minority donors is an affront to its motto but won't be a roadblock to the millions of people worldwide who fight for human rights without the help of a big name organization.

King understood people, he understood that it is the seemingly powerless who are in fact most powerful, and that is something many of us celebrate every single day.