I was with you until you shared King’s quote as you did. I have a great deal of empathy for the white people who are struggling to understand a culture that feels unfamiliar and hostile. But in my empathy is the realization that not understanding the culture that exists around me is a choice: I constantly check my assumptions and perceptions against reality and I am grateful for the people who help me do that. They include the mainstream press, alternative media, bloggers, podcasts and many people I have gotten to know on social media and in the real, physical world. And I have to be honest that this is work: having to constantly remind myself “Hey, is this true? Do I have evidence to show this if someone asks me? Can I explain how these facts hang together in this narrative? Can I show how I came to understand them and why?”
And that is why I find what you do here vaguely disturbing. You seem to be doing the opposite here:
I am deeply concerned that the people whose values and ideals I share are achieving solidarity through righteous rhetoric that also produces condescending and antagonistic norms. I don’t fully understand my discomfort, but I’m scared that what I’m seeing around me is making things worse. And so I went back to some of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches for a bit of inspiration today and I started reflecting on his words.
In other words, you are afraid of how the conversations going on in the world, in our country, are increasingly polarized and divergent, which is very understandable and a feeling I share. And you admit that you don’t understand your discomfort, so you reached for an icon and shared his words. And I too love Martin Luther King, and I am in no way trying to be condescending or dismissive of your fears, but I want to encourage you to look not at his speeches, but his ideas. Specifically, I want to recommend the Letter From a Birmingham Jail.
16 April 1963 My Dear Fellow Clergymen: While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent…www.africa.upenn.edu
You see, I think the problem with invoking King as you do here, is that you are looking at the way he marketed his ideas for public consumption. His speeches are amazing, but I feel like I have to return this conversation to facts on the ground: we know that he had to construct his speeches in ways that worked to reassure and insulate the mostly white country that he inhabited from truly confronting the worst streaks of racist ideology. His activism was actually incredibly dangerous and divisive at the time. He was killed for what he did say, and across the nation people were beaten, set on fire and brutalized, mostly by state sanctioned actors: the police and the national guard.
In other words, what King was saying publicly was beautiful and inspiring. And encouraging nonviolence and abjuring hatred were all wonderful things that still got him killed. And when you reach for those sanitized words that you find so comforting, you are, in some ways acknowledging that we are not that different from the country he spoke to then. We are still resolutely racist and sexist and openly marginalizing of difference.
We white, moderate Americans did not do the work. We made some important changes and progressives gained a lot of ground since the 60s. But those gains were more fragile than most white progressives seemed to understand last year. As evidence, I can point to the way PoC groups were drawn to Clinton’s candidacy, supporting her in huge numbers through the primary. This was not a secret for them. And one thing I saw over and over among the PoC critics of Sanders campaign, the people who kept pointing out how he failed at black outreach, was well-meaning white progressives saying, “well of course he cares about you, he marched with MLK!”
Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic primary in large part because he failed to win the hearts of black progressives. It…fusion.net
I am not trying to relitigate the primary. That ship has sailed. I only want to draw attention to the very weird way that white progressives seem to use King as a comfort object as they insulate their communities from hearing PoC activists.
Now I want to be very clear about why that matters: you are right to point out the mocking and condescending tone often taken by activists and progressives against those perceived to be less woke. That tone is not helpful and we should resist the urge to point and laugh at people’s perception of pain. But the people who are pointing and laughing are a tiny, yet vocal minority. And prioritizing their participation as a problem, as you are doing, against a nation that is growing more violent and more openly discriminatory against immigrants, PoC and LGBTQ identities is to insulate middle America from the kind of self-reflection we needed to undertake 60, 80 or even 100 years ago.
Now maybe your rationale for that makes sense. My instinct is that you believe, as I do, that the racist and xenophobic participants in our culture are fundamentally unreachable. That may actually be true, but I have no idea how anyone could begin to measure or prove it. And the fact that it is true does not absolve us of choosing to tell the people most endangered by the policies we now see coming out of DC to calm down and stop worrying.
That is why I encourage you to read King’s letter. That is exactly what he attempted to answer when he wrote it from jail. Over his life, he was arrested 30 times and he was a young man. We need to be honest about how he would be portrayed in our media, were he alive today. And that means we need to make a choice about the kinds of voices we choose to promote with our activism.
This is King.
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
This is King.
You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
This is King. It is time to hear him instead of just quoting him.
Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why…