By Diana Skelton (France)
The 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that skin color would no longer shape people’s judgement of one another has been an opportunity for soul searching linked to racial profiling. But fully honoring his legacy requires us to look much more closely at economic profiling as well. To judge each person only “by the content of their character” would mean completely uprooting the stereotypes and suspicions that poison the existence of people whose clothing, physical appearance or way of speaking marks them as being people in extreme poverty.
Examples of this kind of profiling are only too abundant:
- A city in South Carolina recently criminalized homelessness, setting up a hotline for passersby to summon the police.
- A town in Switzerland recently banned the residents of its refugee center from accessing its public pool or sports facilities.
- ATD Fourth World’s research shows that people in extreme poverty are treated with a humiliation and contempt that denies their humanity in 25 countries across Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas.
- Oxford University’s research demonstrates that “poverty-related shame is imposed by the attitudes and behavior of those not in poverty, framed by public discourse and influenced by the objectives and implementation of anti-poverty policy” in rural Uganda and India; urban China; Pakistan; South Korea and United Kingdom; and small town and urban Norway.
Exactly a half century ago, Dr. King inspired the world with a new approach to non-violent social transformation. In the years following that landmark speech in 1963, he began speaking more and more about the urgency of fighting poverty:
Like a monstrous octopus, poverty spreads its nagging, prehensile tentacles into hamlets and villages all over our world. […] There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will. In a few weeks some of us are coming to Washington to see if the will is still alive in this nation. We are coming to Washington in a Poor People’s Campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. We are going to bring children and adults and old people, people who have never seen a doctor or a dentist in their lives. We are going to bring those who have known long years of hurt and neglect. We are going to bring those who have come to feel that life is a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs.
His assassination just days after giving that sermon on poverty in 1968 leaves all of us to take up this challenge, which remains unmet.