Every year when I write a column for the Martin Luther King commemorative holiday, I try to get behind the “sanctification” of Dr. King and consider different parts of his message and struggle for which he gave his life.

The MLK holiday has become an annual event that, in a perverse sort of way, dulls the prophetic sting of his message. There are incessant re-playings and recitations of his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech, but little national discussion about how to achieve the dream to which we all dutifully pay lip service and how to measure its progress.

James Harrington
James Harrington

To be sure, America has changed much in the 42 years since the speech; but only by baby steps. The difficult first steps were to dismantle the official structures of segregation, our own version of apartheid. The even harder steps are to reverse the results of the long era of segregation, which persists in housing, schools and the workplace.

We are still plagued with a quieter, but debilitating, version of bias, one that we are to loathe to admit, even in ourselves. Sendhil Mullainathan, professor of economics at Harvard, has again written about this (New York Times, “Racial Bias, Even When We Have Good Intentions”). “White-sounding” names get more attention and deference in academia, the real estate market, employment, and so on. The same is true of Hispanics with anglicized names. Doctors unconsciously recommend non-minority persons for better or higher level treatment. The intent of bias may be dissipating but not its unconscious manifestations.

This issue emerged full force with the police killings and the “black lives matter” protests last year. Not that white lives don’t matter – they do; but is there an instinctive reaction, an unconscious bias, by police toward minority persons that ultimately creates a greater danger for them? The answer is yes; how could there not be, given the police culture and history leading up to the present.

The movie Selma, which is just out and well worth seeing, made the historical point in a different way. The nation, which, after slavery ended, had tolerated brutal southern violence against African Americans for more than a century, shifted dramatically when white clergy and civil rights workers became victims.

So, perhaps this MLK holiday we can pause, especially those of us in the white community, take some time for self-reflection, and commit ourselves to two things: first, trying to name and understand the “quiet” bias barriers about which our society and we personally have to be honest; and, secondly, commit ourselves to undoing them.

We have to face the fact that we still tolerate de facto segregated schools. Those on the poorer side of town always have less equitable opportunities. Until we admit that, we are complicit in allowing our society to split into two classes; we say they are economic classes, but they are still shaded by our awful history of racism.

We also have to help law enforcement agencies free themselves from the cultural and historical baggage foisted upon them so that their officers realize that all lives matter equally and that restrained use of force better serves the community.

And we might want to examine our circle of friends and consider whether we practice the inclusiveness we proclaim. Personal relationships are the best community bridge-builders.

I am confident Dr. King would approve these suggestions, and I’m equally sure he would challenge us with many more. That was his job; he was a prophet. He would be appalled at having been made a saint and thus stripped of the prophetic edge with which he challenged us and made us uncomfortable, but ultimately helped move us toward being a better society.

On this MLK memorial celebration, we must remember we have only begun – we have yet to overcome.

James C. Harrington is director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit foundation that seeks to promote civil rights and economic and racial justice throughout Texas for low-income people.