From MLK’s letter from Birmingham jail:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not . . . 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.”
On this day, which we set aside to remember the life and work of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, I think it is essential that we acknowledge that his dream of achieving racial restorative justice is one we are still fighting for today.
American history includes hundred of years of dehumanizing people of color. That didn’t end with slavery, and it didn’t end in the 1960s with the civil rights movement. Healing did not magically come when we ended Jim Crow or desegregated schools. Racism is an ugly, persistent, systemic force, one that leaves deep wounds and influences all of us whether we realize it or not. It is a relevant issue which still that requires our consistent opposition and personal humility.
This recent political season has put racial issues back on the table for all of us, regardless of our affiliation. We continue to be inundated with video footage of unarmed black men (and often children) being shot in the streets. We see the bold political divides among racial lines. We hear the rallying cries of protesters, pleading with all who will listen that their children’s lives have value. We are confronted with the fact that our prisons are disproportionately full of people of color; that one in three black men will be incarcerated as opposed to one in 17 white men. We can’t ignore these issues anymore: We have to deal with them.
After the election, I saw a lot of my white friends take to social media to defend themselves against any hint of prejudice: “I’m not racist, I don’t even see color.”
To which, I say, great: It’s good that you don’t have any ardent hatred for people who are different than you. But that is hardly the standard to which we should ascribe. That’s just the baseline assumption for being a decent person. Racial reconciliation requires more than that.
The next step is more difficult, because it requires us to be humble and to listen. It requires white folks to be willing to learn from people of color about their experiences of race in America. It requires seeking out their perspectives, and not overpowering them with our own. This isn’t about demonizing all police officers or furthering division, it’s about achieving something we all want: justice, equity, and understanding. This has to start with conversations in which we are humble and self-critical.
Even if it’s uncomfortable, we can’t remain neutral in these sorts of situations. Not when there is still so much work to be done. Dr King reminded us that silence in the face of injustice perpetuates injustice. Inactivity is always taking a side, and that side usually favors the oppressor over the oppressed.
God forbid I ever become the white moderate, more concerned with order than with justice, who Martin Luther King said was a bigger stumbling block to people of color than the Klansman.
God forbid I am ever more concerned with being called a racist than I am with the awful, present, ongoing problem of racism.
God forbid I decline to engage in the hard work of restorative justice it makes me or anyone else uncomfortable.
And thank God for rebel rousers like MLK who refused to be quiet about injustice.