Seattle: Take Your Foot off the Mouse’s Tail

The negative emails in this article are consistent with my take on many of the self-described progressives in Seattle (in the article a school board member calls it “passive progressiveness” and I love it). The parents writing these messages live in an absurdly segregated city, but put the “right” signs on lawns, bumper stickers on Subarus and Priuses, and pat themselves on the back for being so evolved — unlike those Trump-supporting yokels in the middle of the country. But as soon as they are challenged or inconvenienced in the tiniest of ways (in this case it was teachers wearing #blm shirts and their children wanting/needing to talk about the movement — what it means and why people feel compelled to act), they have the audacity to invoke MLK to demand silence on any issue pertaining to race.

How about instead of latching on to the one MLK quote we all know (“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” a good one, to be clear) and instead challenge ourselves to step out of the complacency? In my view, the MLK quote we ought to keep in our minds is the opening paragraph to his Letter from Birmingham Jail:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order’’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Those words, written in 1963, articulate an inescapable, uncomfortable truth about our social fabric: passivity and moderation will simply bolster extant power dynamics. When I think of this, I am reminded of another quote, this time it’s from Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Our parents’ generations have failed to atone for the sins of their parents’ generations, and now that burden is laid at our feet. Will we bury our heads in the sand and continue to ignore human suffering? Will our failures today haunt our children’s consciences? Or will we pass the test? Will we break the cycle, form broad, inclusive movements, and begin the hard work of building a just society?

My plea to Seattle and, more broadly, to white parents sending their kids to predominantly white schools is simple: Do not join the ranks of the white moderates who value their comfort over our shared humanity, but have the courage and self-awareness to commit yourselves to justice, order be damned. Do it for your children.