What Happened to the Content of Our National Character?

What happened to the content of this nation’s character?

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Over the last 50 years this country has struggled to free itself from its racist legacy in pursuit of what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called an America where people "will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." Unfortunately there are still those, some even who were close to King, for whom race is the paramount consideration while character matters not at all.

It is surely an odd turn of events that finds us living in a country where character, behavior, is given less weight than it should in the course of everyday events while race has become a bludgeon to be wielded against political and cultural opponents of the dominant media culture. In ways both subtle and not-so-subtle race – ethnicity, skin color, national origin – are being manipulated to excuse behaviors that would not have been tolerated at the time King made his famous address on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Neither political party is to blame for this. It is not solely a matter of partisanship; it's more like a cultural sickness, the primary symptom of which is to use both race and racism as an excuse for illiteracy, lack of economic progress, the disintegration of the family as the primary building block of society, crime, terrorism and just about every other social ill that can be named.

At the same time character, which is expressed in the way one thinks, the way one acts and the way one reacts is discounted to the point where it is hardly counted at all.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Consider the Trayvon Martin case. For all too many of the commentators who chose to weigh in, including President Barack Obama, his death at the hands of George Zimmerman after some kind of altercation on a rainy Florida night was all about race, about the taking of the life of a young black man by what the New York Times outrageously called "a white Hispanic," inventing a heretofore unheard of racial category to keep the white/black equation alive

The issue here, which would have likely given King fits, is that the commentators who covered the trial specifically told people to ignore Martin's behavior. What he was doing, why he was in the neighborhood, what he might have said or done to attract Zimmerman's attention – in essence his character – was specifically off limits.

Meanwhile, just weeks after the Zimmerman trial concluded, three young men – two of whom are black and one of whom reportedly shares the president's racial makeup – shoot a young Australian student in the back, killing him, and race again is the immediate issue. In this case the same people who said race had nothing to do with the shooting of Trayvon Martin are arguing it did play a role in the murder of Chris Lane, whether as some kind of gang initiation or as revenge for Martin. The people who said race was the factor in the Martin case, however, make little if any mention of it now that the accused are black and the victim is white.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the Trayvon Martin tragedy.]

Character counts. It is the most important thing of all, an expression of what we do with the talents and values and empathies given to use by our Creator and by those who raise and mentor us. Those who walk around with their hands out, looking for things they did not earn, for the fruits of labors they did not expend – like those involved with Occupy Wall Street – show they have little if any character worth emulating. They accept no responsibility for their own actions and failures and seek to place the blame elsewhere, most often on those who by matters of birth, luck, and hard work have managed to achieve material success even if they too may lack emotional security.

As we honor King's legacy on the 50th anniversary of his most important speech, indeed one of the most important public oratories in American history – it must be said that the nation still has a long way to go before his dream is achieved. Not because everyone still sees everything in terms of color but because now, inexplicably, the content of one's character has ceased to be an important part of the calculation. Respect, he might tell us if he were still with us today, must be earned. It is not like grace, which is granted freely and given as a gift without expectation of reciprocity. Respect is indeed mutual, is not automatic – though the presumption of respect may be – and must be maintained through one's actions towards one's neighbors, one's family, the community and the nation at large.

Lack of character, what we see when politicians accept bribes, when husbands cheat on their wives, when women terminate pregnancies for no reason other than they're being inconvenient, when young men serially procreate with different women with no regard whatsoever for their subsequent obligations to the child of that issue, when people treat the English language – our means of common community – as some sort of conspiracy to oppress the disadvantaged, must be addressed head on. It is not an excuse, as uncomfortable as it might, to try and make it out to be about something else, especially race.

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