The White Moderate After Charlottesville

It’s easy to call out the torch-wielding, epithet-shouting racist. But what about today’s white moderate?

He is sensible, measured, and reasonable. He labels racists for what they are and he repudiates their actions in Charlottesville. He has studied and cares deeply about American history. He is thoughtful and well informed about how quickly fascism and genocide spread in Europe through WWII. More recently, he has watched too many questionable police shootings of unarmed black men result in judicial exoneration. He is troubled by these deaths. He is empathetic to the discouragement experienced by black co-workers and friends. He will tell you repeatedly that he didn’t vote for Trump and that he finds the man’s election an embarrassment. He clearly sees a disturbing authoritarian streak in the White House. And he wonders whether Trump’s tweets signal mental instability.

So what then does this white moderate choose to fight for at this pivotal moment? What does he deem is so important after surveying this explosive political landscape? What does he decide is most worthy of his time and effort? What topic does he gravitate to when discussing political events with friends and colleagues? What does he devote emotional energy to through social media at this remarkable historical turning point?

Astoundingly, he has decided that now is the moment to develop and express a careful, well-reasoned argument explaining why Confederate statues should remain.

Martin Luther King Jr. understood this phenomenon. King had seen his own home and local churches bombed, watched mobs of Klansmen beat up unarmed protesters, and mourned friends gunned down by angry, overt racists. But from a Birmingham jail, he pointed condemnation toward a very different group of whites:

Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King Jr.

“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.”

Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”