From Dreams to Reality: The Illusion of Full Inclusion
Presented at the 28th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast Celebration
February 8, 2002
Thank you. Y'all better sit down, I ain't said nothing yet. You might want that back in about 20 minutes. I always laugh at folk who give standing ovations before you've ever said anything. You may disagree with everything I have to say. Why did I stand up for that Negro before he ever said something? I'm delighted to be in Cambridge and to be back in the great state of Massachusetts. Let me commence by thanking your president, Mr. Vest, and his wife for their fine hospitality and for being our tablemates this morning. We had good conversation, delighted to sit with them. Also honored to be at the same table with your immediate past president, Dr. Gray, and his wife. And so it's a good feeling to go somewhere and have two presidents show up to greet you at a table.
I must have done something right, I guess, or been lucky for the right table to sit at. So thank you for being here. I think it is very important, it's always important for me at least, and it makes an impression on me when you show up somewhere at a celebration such as this and the folk who are in charge, who happen not to be African-American, deem it important and necessary to be there themselves. And so I'm always honored to see persons who are in charge of making decisions who value these issues and, as evidenced by their presence and indeed by their strong words this morning, understand that the real essence of diversity is something that has to be addressed in that diversity and tolerance are not just words but indeed ways of life that we have to be more serious about making our reality on a daily basis. Let me also, before I get into my remarks, thank the co-chairs of this event, Mr. Feld and Mr. Osgood, for the invitation and for the hard work that you and all the committee have done to make this event possible. Wonderful turnout obviously. You couldn't get any more people in here if you wanted to, so it's a great turnout. I think, as has already been said, it does in fact, if you look around the room from this podium, now I get a chance to see what everybody's been talking about how the beautiful the room really looks and how this room really does speak to the fact that this room quite frankly represents a microcosm of what the world really is. And three are the kinds of gatherings, it seems to me, that we ought to be a part of when we talk about celebrating the life and legacy of one Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
So much has been said this morning and I quite frankly have said two or three times to people sitting around me, I don't know why I'm here. I mean everything that needed to be said has already been said. It has been said, it has been sung, it has been, you know.
I don't know what else y'all expecting me to come with this morning. I told Brother Osgood, if you ever set me up like this again. Put me up at the end of a program when everything has been said, behind two presidents, two or three choirs, Eric .
And then 45 minutes behind schedule and I'm supposed to hit a grand slam. Right. I've been set up. It's a set up. I've been bamboozled, hoodwinked, run amok and led astray. I am mindful of the time. We are running a little bit behind schedule. And so let me offer some abbreviated remarks, if I might, but remarks, I hope, that will nonetheless cause us to think as we go along our way.
You'll be happy to know as a member of the debate team at Indiana University that my debate coach taught me a couple of very important lessons about public speaking. The first she called the four Ss. Always remember, Tavis, how to stand up, speak up, shut up and sit your behind down. Stand up, speak up, shut up and sit down. And she said secondly that a few minutes, just a few minutes, is long enough for a good presentation and too long for a bad one. A few minutes is long enough for a good presentation and too long for a bad one. Now if you're black, and I see that some of y'all up in here this morning are, that's a black thing right there, ain't it? Why black folk always got to be up in something? Who started that? Up in MIT, up in the barbershop, up in the beauty salon, up in folk business. We always up in. I don't know where that started. I'm glad you up in here this morning but the point that I want to make is that if you're black and you've been in a church house before on a Sunday morning you know what I'm talking about. That a few minutes is long enough for a good presentation and too long for a bad one. Last Sunday at my own church in Los Angeles the reverend was doing good at about the 22 minute mark and then he stretched it a little longer than he should have and by the time he got around to opening up the doors of the church wasn't nobody up in there.
Because he didn't know how to stand up, speak up, shut up and sit down. I hope, though, in the time that I have left here to be good, to be quick and to be gone so that y'all can get on with the rest of your day. It seems to me, though, right quick here when you talk about Dr. King in terms of celebrating his life and his legacy the real essence of King's life, as far as I'm concerned, is challenging each and every one of us, I believe I can put it this way, to reexamine our assumptions. That's my thesis and I'm sticking with it. That King's life and legacy and his work, at the very core, at its very essence, was about challenging each and every one of us to examine, to indeed reexamine, our assumptions. To reexamine our assumptions. And everything that King did, everything that he worked for, everything that he labored, every word that he wrote, every bit of prose that he uttered was all dedicated to the proposition, it seems to me, to challenge each and every one of us, no matter our station in life, to reexamine the assumptions, assumptions about this country, assumptions about its people, indeed assumptions about ourselves.
The life and legacy of King is about challenging us, it seems to me, to reexamine the assumptions.
Now, I've got to lay this out as my foundation because if you can't get with that then you can't with the rest of what I want to offer you this morning. I hope that we can all agree at least that King's life is about challenging us to reexamine our assumptions, to reexamine those things that we believe to be true. There is one thing this morning that it seems to me that all of us have to agreed upon, I hope beyond that, and that is that this moment, today, is a defining moment in the life of this country. This is a defining moment. There have been very few who have bounded up on this podium this morning, have stood behind this lectern, and have not made some reference, either directly or in some oblique manner, some reference to September the 11th of last year. For those who are on the lecture circuit, those who are not just on the lecture circuit, for any of us, all of us, it is impossible these days to have conversation without having September 11th come up at some point as a reference. Now, I'm bothered by those of us who look at everything through the prism of September 11th. I mean there's a line here that we need to be careful about not crossing. We cannot look at everything, every decision we make cannot be through the prism of September 11th. You do understand that there was life before September the 11th. And even though I'm getting less and less confident of this, Mr. Bush, after we hunt him down and smoke him out, you know, after we find him dead or alive, once we know for certain where Mr. Bin Laden is and we get Al Qaeda under control, life will go on. That's the good news.
There was life before September the 11th and there will be life after we get this terrorism situation under some better control. And so it behooves each of us not to look at everything and not to make every decision and not to alter our lives in every possible way merely through the prism of September the 11th.
But having said that who in this room can deny, who can deny that this is for America a defining moment?
This King celebration in the year 2002, as Mr. President said a moment ago, is like none other. Things have changed. Things are different. Our lives have been altered in ways, I think quite frankly forever, but ways that we don't even yet know how dramatically our lives have been altered. We don't even know all of that. The whole has not been told yet of how dramatically our lives have been altered. But we all must agree, it seems to me, that this is a defining moment in America. You still with me? All right. So here's the question, for me. Since everybody's asking questions let me ask a question. And particularly since I'm talking to an audience at MIT, you're much brighter than I am, I can't tell you nothing anyway so let me ask you a few things. I can do that. I'm good at asking questions. I do that for a living every single day but far be it from me to try to tell y'all anything.
It seems to me that if this is a defining moment then the question is begged today as to how we take this defining moment and redefine America. I lost somebody. I didn't come all the way from LA to Cambridge to just talk about this being a defining moment, to simply and merely celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King. I could have done that in Los Angeles.
I came here because you are uniquely positioned as the best and the brightest that this country has to offer. Those who will move from this place to become leaders in all kinds of institutions, in corporate America, in government and beyond. You are uniquely and best positioned to not just raise the question of how we take this defining moment and redefine America but indeed to go about the business of answering that question.
Let me submit something to you.
It would be a travesty for me for this country to have endured what we endured on the day that those diabolical attacks were levied against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it would be beyond horrific, it is quite frankly intolerable, it is unbelievable, it is unacceptable, untenable quite frankly, to imagine that after what we endured on September the 11th with planes taking off from Logan airport that those of you in this edifice would allow that day to come and to go, to understand that it is a defining moment for us, and to not do anything about taking this defining moment and redefining America. Shame on us.
If we conclude and agree that this is a defining moment for our country and that those of us who are the gifted, those of us who have been blessed beyond measure, the bible puts it this way, to whom much is given much is required. To whom much is given much is expected. If not you then who? Somebody has to ask the tough questions. Somebody's got to raise the issue of how we take this defining moment and redefine America. I want to submit that to you today as perhaps one of the most propitious questions that we ought to be asking ourselves at this juncture in this country's history.
How do we take this defining moment and redefine America?
Now, one would think that that has already happened. Indeed, as I've listened to folk behind this podium this morning, there is some evidence. President Vest spoke rather wonderfully to this notion, as did others who stood up behind this podium moments earlier, made the argument, I think quite well that there is some evidence that some progress has been made. There is some evidence that suggests that since September the 11th maybe we've become more humane, maybe we've become a little less nativist, maybe we've become better neighbors, maybe there is a little less racial tension. I don't know, I'm not a scientist and I've not done a study on this. All I know is that James Baldwin put it this way, race is not a personal reality, race is not a human reality, race is a political reality. And for those folk who are still black up in here, up in here, you understand that Baldwin was right then and he's right now, that race is still a political reality. Period.
Now, it seems to me that if we're going to raise this question of this defining moment and how we redefine America then there's a role for each of us to play in the process of answering that unique question. And while there's evidence, as I said a moment ago, or intimated at least, while there's evidence that suggests that we have made some progress I believe that there's a great deal more to do. And for those who are excited about the good that has come out of September the 11th, for those who believe this country is on a new path, for those who believe that this is a new day, for those who believe we've already gotten the point, that America has already been made exponentially better by September 11th, from my perspective, my humble perspective, let me disabuse you of that notion.
I do not believe that enough has been done. I don't believe, quite frankly, that we get it yet. I do not believe that we get it. We still do not understand what September the 11th was all about. We don't get it. I think it's important to note that every defining moment does not necessarily lead to a redefinition of anything. I know this is MIT and I know y'all believe in cause and effect and we are told for every cause there is an effect. And I guess on some level that must be true but it seems to me that we have a cause for September the 11th but I'm just not sure yet of what the effect of September the 11th is yet or what it is going to be long term. I am convinced of this, that every defining moment in this country's history does not necessarily redefine anything. Just because you have a defining moment doesn't mean there's going to be a redefinition. Can I convince you of this right quick?
The Civil War was a defining moment for America. On the radio show yesterday we had Morgan Freeman on the show, who many of you recall was in that wonderful movie, Glory, about the Massachusetts 54th colored regiment. Denzel Washington, of course, won an Academy Award for his wonderful portrayal in that movie. But we had Morgan on yesterday talking about this regiment in the context of February and Black History month which we now celebrate, of course. And it occurred to me in our conversation yesterday, and I've written about this of late, that while the Civil War was a defining moment what did it do to redefine America? Specifically for black folk. This blows me away every time I think about this. Understand that in the Civil War, it is moving every time I consider this, here we are in the Civil War with black folk who were at best indentured servants, at worst out and out slaves, and yet these Negroes volunteered to serve and to fight and to die for their country. I don't think you feel me on this yet. Black folk who were slaves fighting, mind you, over the institution of slavery volunteered to serve and to fight and to die for their country. That was a defining moment. But what did it do to redefine America for black folk? Nothing. Fast forward. World War II. A defining moment in this country. Negro soldiers, colored soldiers, went to war to fight and to die to serve their country. A defining moment but what did it do for black folk in America? Nothing. Do you realize that these were colored soldiers, these were Negro soldiers, on the train on the way home, understand this, on the train after fighting, on the way back home, Negro soldiers, colored soldiers, had to sit on the train behind Nazi war criminals. Sitting on the train behind Nazi war criminals. A defining moment but what did it do to redefine America for black folk? Nothing. The Vietnam War, a defining moment. What did it do to redefine America for black folk. Muhammad Ali, you saw the movie. Muhammad Ali had this down, he understood it, and that's why we revere and respect Ali so much today. Of the war in Vietnam, Muhammad Ali put it down, as only he could say it, keep asking me, no matter how long, about the war in Vietnam, I sing this song, I ain't got no quarrel with the Vietcong. Ali understood that. He understood that the Vietnam War was a defining moment. But what was it going to do to redefine America for black folk? Fast forward now to America's new war. Here we are in 2002 in America's new war and the question, that urgent question, persists.
What will happen in this defining moment to redefine America for black folk?
Let me take this concept a little further. The reason why I asked the question about redefining America for black folk is because I believe in the context of Dr. King's celebration and the context of the struggle, in the context of African-American history month, you've got to start at that particular place. You've got to start with us. But I further believe that when you make black America better you make all of America better. You make black America better, you make all of America better. So I want to be clear about why I'm starting with that thesis at least. You make our community better, you make the country a better place. But what is this defining moment going to do to redefine America for black folk, and for all people of color? I hope I've just convinced you that every defining moment doesn't necessarily redefine. Which means that somebody has got to be prepared to do something, to take advantage of a defining moment and use it to redefine. How does one do that? I believe that one does that by accepting the challenge that King gave us to reexamine our assumptions. We have to reexamine our assumptions about a variety of things. The President mentioned in my introduction that there are a number of media outlets that we are now employed by. You know, BET was great and it was a wonderful run but thank God that life goes on and now there's ABC and there's CNN, there's NPR and all the other wonderful things that we get a chance to do on a daily basis vis-a-vis the media. A quick story. Months ago I signed this contract with CNN and started doing commentary for them during the day side and prime time for ABC on Thursday evenings. And I signed the contract, I appeared on CNN for a couple of weeks and then, bam, September the 11th came and all of a sudden I kind of disappeared. So black folk all across the country, indeed others but certainly black folk, were writing CNN and e-mailing me and calling me and faxing me and asking me, Travis, that's a joke for those who really know my name, they were saying to me, Travis, we saw you on CNN a couple of weeks ago and now that the war his hit we want your perspective, where ya at? As my English teacher would tell me behind that preposition, but they'd ask me, where ya at, we haven't seen you lately. And I had to go on the radio one day after weeks of getting all this mail and all these inquiries, because I needed to address this issue. I didn't want folk to think that I had been hired by CNN and fired that quickly, you know. So I had to explain. I went on the radio and said to people, let me just tell you where I've been at and why you haven't seen me on CNN or ABC talking about the war, talking about the attack of September the 11th. This is just a few weeks removed from the 11th. I said to them very quickly and essentially that I was watching Politically Incorrect one night with my friend Bill Maher, Bill's a dear friend of mine, I love the show, but I'm watching Bill's show one night and I see Bill put his foot in his mouth. And some of y'all have followed this controversy with Bill Maher on Politically Incorrect and there's still a very likelihood that he will lose his show, the show will be canceled at the end of the season, because Bill said the wrong thing at the wrong time. Some of you recall that Bill Maher suggested in a Politically Incorrect format which that's what his show is so I don't know why he got in trouble, but I digress, Bill said in the show that they had a lot of courage. It took a lot of courage for these terrorists to train and to do what they did and dedicate themselves, it was wicked courage but courage to come do what they did and to plan it the way they did. And Bill suggested that we are a bunch of cowards, that we're over here lobbing cruise missiles. We don't have the courage of our convictions to do what they did.
And I understood his analogy but the bible puts it this way, all things are lawful but all things are not expedient. Some of y'all didn't get that. Let me come at that another way. How about Kenny Rogers? You got to know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em. All right, now I got you. Know when to walk away and know when to run. Malcolm X had his relationship with Elijah Muhammad start to deteriorate, when? When after the assassination of JFK Malcolm X said the chickens have come home to roost. Wrong thing at the wrong time. So Bill Maher found himself in trouble for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. I saw Bill get in trouble with that. I said OK, I'm just making notes, I'm paying attention.
I'm listening to the radio one day and I hear Rush Limbaugh on the radio one day go into overdrive blaming the September 11th attack on William Jefferson Clinton. Go figure. But Limbaugh finds a way to blame the attack on September the 11th on the failed policies of the Clinton administration. That's why I love my friends on the right, they will always find a way to blame Clinton for something. And so Rush got in trouble for really jumping out too headstrong politically, blaming this on Clinton. You know, inappropriate. Limbaugh got slapped down and got in trouble and was being challenged in the media for what he had said. And then I looked up one day and saw my friend, the Right Reverend Dr. Jerry Falwell, put both of his feet, hands, everything else in his mouth when Falwell suggested that the attacks could be blamed on the civil libertarians, on the feminists, on the pagans, on black folk, on the ACLU. Some of y'all saw this comment, you know I'm not making this up. Did anybody see this? OK. I want to make sure I'm not talking to myself up here. I'm not making this up. This is a true story. So Jerry Falwell got in trouble for blaming it on basically everybody except the Christian Right. I said to the audience after recounting these stories that by my count that's one, two, three white boys who all got in trouble for running they mouth, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. I know if I take my fresh black behind up on CNN and ABC and put it down the way I know I want to put it down I would be fired with the quickness, and you would never, ever hear the name Travis Smiley again. And so it wasn't the time. The point is that the time just wasn't right for me to say what I thought needed to be said. The time wasn't necessarily right to ask these questions. But oh, brothers and sisters, ladies and gentlemen, there is a time acoming. And maybe that time is now.
And maybe today is the moment that those of us who are dedicated to the principle of making America better after September the 11th, of making this country live up to her true ideals, of making these documents, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence in the great city of Boston, making our history real, making these documents living and breathing documents. For those who are dedicated to the proposition that America can be made better there is no better time than now for us to reexamine our assumptions and to take this defining moment and redefine America. Got to ask some tough questions to do that.
Can I offer a few of them to you as we leave here? I believe we've got to start asking the question of what patriotism really is. Let me get myself in some trouble right quick. We got the check already? All right. You know, some places you've got to ask, do you have the check, Mr. Osgood. Some places you've got to ask have we cashed the check. I know at MIT I ain't got to worry about that problem. All right.
I believe we have to start by asking ourselves what patriotism really is and what it means. Can I just be real with you for just a second? Can I keep it real for just a minute? I've noticed a distinction here. There are two things going on. Some of us are caught up in the patriotism and I ain't mad at you. Some of us, though, have gotten caught up in nationalism. There is a distinction. Patriotism is one thing. Patriotism demands that you make your country better by asking the tough questions. Patriotism demands debate. Patriotism sometimes demands dissent. Nationalism is fanaticism. I'm an America, I'm going to wave a flag, I'm down with whatever Mr. Bush says. Whatever Congress says I'm down with it. And nobody is prepared to stand in the gap and to raise the tough questions that need to be raised. And that is not an indictment. I mean to cast no aspersion necessarily on the way that Mr. Bush has stewarded this country since September the 11th. I think on balance he's done a fine job. But I believe that somewhere in this debate about patriotism were King here with us today he would be demanding that we make the distinction between patriotism and nationalism. He would demand that we raise the tough questions about what it really means to be an American. He would demand that we raise some tough questions about how we can become a better neighbor in the world. It's not enough to stand at this podium today and to call off the names of all these wonderful countries that we have Nobel laureates from and that we have students from. MIT is a great institution but the truth of the matter is that in part we found ourselves in this mess on September the 11th because of the way we treat folk around the world. We don't want to deal with that. We don't want to deal with that. You've got to ask some tough questions. The chickens have come home to roost. You can't prop up dictators like Mbutu Sese Seko [SP?] in parts of Africa, befriending anybody who would befriend you during the Cold War, and not think that would come back to haunt you at some point. You can't prop up dictators like Marcos in the Philippines and think that won't come home to haunt you at some time. And the list goes on and on and on and on of, quite frankly, transgressions that we have made, mistakes that we have made. And I hope at some point that somebody has the courage, that somebody has the fortitude, that somebody has the good sense, to raise the kinds of questions about the very notion of patriotism and how we behave or misbehave in the world as Americans, trying to big stick people. Somebody's got to raise these questions.
And if King were here today, you're right, he wouldn't let you get away with calling him just a dreamer. He would challenge us to ask the tough questions about what it means to be an American, how we can become better Americans and what patriotism really means. King would demand, were he here today, that we ask some questions about foreign policy. Have you noticed that when Bush took office Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Rice were all lined up as unilateralists? It was very clear, it's our way or the highway. It was hawkish, it was John Wayne, it was to hell with the Kosovo treaty, we ain't signing it, we're going to get out of it, we're not going to South Africa to no racism conference, no, we ain't going. Our way or the highway. That was the unilateral approach when they came into office. Oh, my, how things have changed.
Colin Powell was the only one standing over here with a multilateral approach saying that we have got to engage the world. We've got to be better neighbors, we've got to rethink how we do our policy, etc, etc, etc. They didn't want to hear that. But now I have noted at least of late the administration now speaking more with one voice. And maybe now they're starting to get the fact that we have to have a multilateral, a we not an us versus them, approach to how we engage the world.
But why did it have to come at the expense of those 3,000 lives at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and in those planes?
We ought to have better sense then to understand that we've got to have a better way to engage our neighbors and our friends around the globe. We've got to raise some tough questions about foreign policy. Everybody gets caught up in this euphoria about Dr. King and nobody recalls that King had dropped precipitously in opinion polls at the time of his death. Go back and check your facts. King was not at the top of the popularity polls when he died. Because of his opposition to the war in Vietnam. As I recall, don't quote me on this, I don't even think King made the top five. He may have barely made the top ten in the Time poll at the time of his death based upon popularity and likability. That Q rating that he had had dropped dramatically. King understood that and wasn't bothered by it. He wasn't bothered by it because King understood that the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in times of comfort and convenience but where he stands in times of controversy and challenge. Somebody's got to ask the tough questions about foreign policy. It's not just a celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. King but understanding that we have to reexamine the assumptions. Issues of civil liberties that are, quite frankly, out of control. I don't feel safer today with regard to the issue of racial profiling than I did a few days ago just because somebody else is now the target. No, no, no. I know too many brothers in my neighborhood in South Central who look like some Arabs that we think are responsible for what happened and who we want to go after. Are you feeling me on this?
I know some folk of Arab descent who look just like some of y'all up in this room today. The shade of their skin, are you feeling me on this? The shade of their skin is very similar and very akin to yours. The problem is we have an administration now that's doing an overreach on civil liberties. I think we all agree that there's got to be a balance between civil liberties and doing away and ending terrorism. But it's got to be done in a cordially competent way. It's got to be done in a socially responsible way. And I don't know that we are achieving that. If King were here today he'd be asking us to reexamine our assumptions about how we're going to go after terrorists, about how we're going to condone this racial profiling that's going on now. Once they get these laws, once they get these rules on the books, as they're getting every day, a few years from now who do you think these rules are going to be used against? You. Driving while black, walking while black, breathing while black, living while black. Just being black. And brown.
We've got to reexamine our assumptions about what it means to have this debate about racial profiling. Reexamine our assumptions about this. Somebody's got to ask some tough questions about the media. I'm just giving you some food for thought here this morning.
Did you notice during all the coverage here you have a city like New York, arguably one of the greatest cities in the world, the most multicultural, multiracial and multiethnic city in the world, and yet how many people of color did you see reporting the news to you every night out of New York? Some of y'all didn't even peep that out. We're talking about coming together as a nation. Do you see the irony here? Do you see, quite frankly, the hypocrisy here? We are talking together about coming together as a nation and we shall overcome and God bless America and America the beautiful and yadda, yadda, yadda and yet I'm watching the news every night, I don't see nobody looking like me reporting the news. I don't see folk like me, quite frankly, routinely who are victims of this tragedy. I didn't see no cops who looked like me. Wasn't no firefighters who looked like me because there ain't no black firefighters in the New York fire department, comparatively speaking.
My point is simply this, that while we talk about coming together and the good that's come out of this tragedy there are some assumptions that still need to be reexamined. And King would not let us off the hook so easily. He wouldn't let us off the hook talking about his life and his legacy without understanding what his life and legacy was about, getting us to reexamine the assumptions and to challenge the prevailing wisdom, to challenge the status quo. Nobody wants to have these conversations right now. But these are the real issues. This is what really has to happen if America is going to be made better out of this tragedy.
Somebody's got to ask some questions about religious intolerance. Racial intolerance. You realize that hate is alive and well in this country. They're not walking up and down the street with hoods and sheets like they used to but hate is spreading in this country. And do you know where hate is spreading fastest? On the Internet. There are more sites popping up every month dedicated to the notion of spreading hate than any other genre on the net, any other genre on the web.
That's one of the reasons, Mr. President, one of the reasons why we're doing this technology summit and partnering with Bill Gates and traveling around the country. Gates and I were together in LA last week, going to three other cities this year with a whole tour called Blacks and Technology. Free, open to the public. Trying to get black folk to understand, to appreciate, to embrace this thing called technology. Because I am determined to not allow this technological revolution to pass people of color by and we not getting a little something out of it, number one, but number two, to allow this technology, as the President said, to be turned in a wicked way and used against us. We've got to use it for our good, for our benefit and not allow other folks to use it for our detriment. But hate is spreading fastest on the Internet. Nobody's talking about technology and how we are being left out of that process. We talk about the technology we have to go hunt people down and smoke them out, we're talking about technology in terms of how we zoom in and we're taking credit for how we've used technology to wipe out this building and wipe out this truck.
I mean I'm fascinated sometimes by how much we've done in our defense department. We can target a truck going down the road 10,000 miles away and take out a truck on a road with somebody in it who we want. And yet we can't get our schools wired in the inner city. Hello? Can't wire schools in the inner city. But we can't have that conversation. See, we up here in the clouds with the life and the legacy. And that ain't where King was. King was down here getting us to reexamine the assumptions.
Finally, there's a litany of domestic policy issues that King would be demanded that we talk about at the appropriate time. If we really are talking about making America better it can't just be MIT dedicated to the notion of affirmative action. We have to have a country and a government that understands that affirmative action is a corrective policy that works. Everybody has to understand that.
Got to understand that. That's what King would be talking about. We've got to do something about predatory lending, about why we go after people of color in the indigenous community in predatory lending ways. One, you can't get no money and if you get it they charge you more to get it because of what you look like and where you live. Insurance redlining. I can do an end run on you here. A long litany of things that we are not talking about, that we are not debating because we've been stifled by this war on terrorism. Immigration policy, education. Long list of things that we have to address. And if King were here today he would not be letting us off the hook. The mere notion of celebrating his life and his legacy and his wonderful work and his wonderful prose, he would be demanding and challenging us to reexamine the assumptions that we hold about America, about how wonderful we think we are, about how great we think we are, about how wonderful a neighbor we think we are, about how good a world citizen we think we are, and about how wonderful we all feel about the good, allegedly, that has come out of this tragedy. I believe that some good has come out of it.
But I believe there's a great deal more that we have to challenge America to do to live up to her true ideals. King put it this way, cowardice asks is it safe, expediency asks is it politic, vanity asks is it popular but conscience asks is it right. And every now and then, ladies and gentlemen, we must take positions that are neither comfortable nor safe nor politic nor convenient but we do it because our conscience tells us that it's right. There's an old gospel song that I love so much. Hearing this choir this morning my mind went back to it. Says I pressing on the upward way, new heights I'm gaining every day, still praying as I'm onward bound, Lord, plant my feet on higher ground. Says my heart has no desire to stay where doubts arise and fears dismay, though some may dwell where these abound my prayer, my aim, is higher. What are we doing to attain, to reach, that higher ground. Eric mentioned Morehouse. Benjamin Elijah Mays who taught Dr. King everything he knew put it like this, the tragedy of life does not lie in not reaching your goal, the tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It is not a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled but it is a calamity not to dream. It is not a disaster to not be able to capture your ideals but it is a disaster to have no ideals to capture. It is not a disgrace to not be able to reach all of the stars but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for. Not failure but low aim is sin. Why does that matter? Because what gets most of us most of the time in our effort to make America better is not that we fail but that our aim is too low. It's not that the President fails in trying to expand diversity at MIT, it's that too often our aim is too low. It's not that we fail at we do to make our communities better, it's that our aim is too low. How high are we reaching? What goals are we setting? What are we really attempting to accomplish?
It's not the failure that gets us, it's our low aim. And in trying to make MIT and in trying to make America better when we fail at what we try too many of us get knocked down and don't get back up. My grandmother, big mama, said to me all the time, Tavis, you can't win it if you ain't in it. Advocacy is not a spectator sport. To make a difference, honey, you got to get off the sideline and get involved in the game. To make a difference you've got to reexamine those assumptions. To make a difference you've got to ask those tough questions. Life is like a heart monitor. It goes up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down and the ups and down are all good. Don't let that sucker flatline on you, that's what you're trying to avoid, but the ups and downs of trying to make a contribution, the ups and downs of trying to make a difference is to be expected. I told some students the other day that being black is like flying on an airplane.
Being an American, quite frankly, forget being black. Being an American is like flying on a plane, forgive the reference. What do I mean? When you get on that plane, you've all heard it before, they tell you in the unlikely event, they don't want to scare you to death, they don't want to mess with your nerves, so they tell you in the unlikely event of a sudden loss of air pressure the oxygen mask will drop from the compartment above your head. What do they tell you to do with that mask? Take the mask and put it on yourself first before you assist the person seated next to you.
What's your point, Tavis? You can't help nobody else in America unless you first help yourself. And that's what these celebrations are all about.
Getting us to reexamine our own assumptions, preparing us to ask the tough questions, preparing us then to go out and do something to help make black America and all of America better. In the final analysis I believe, and it is true, that he who starts behind in the great race of life must forever remain behind or run faster than the man in front. It's time for all of us to pick up the pace.