Recently, I read - for the first time in its entirety - "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. There is a famous quote from this lengthy letter which sits very heavy with me, and I have included an excerpt here:
"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his 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." - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I grew up in a very rural area of Kentucky and moved to Louisville, Kentucky as a young adult. I remember a relative asking me why I wanted to live in the city. They said it was "dirty"; I said it had character. Now, I see that we were both right, and we were both wrong also. This city knows a kind of pain that the farms and the woods of my youth did not. Now, everyone can see it. The tragedy of Breonna Taylor has burned through this city like a torch lighting the way out of a dark tunnel. She is the representation of every racial injustice and untruth that has lain hidden and draped over by shimmering diversions. Breonna Taylor is now the manifestation of every black future that has been stolen, every black child who has been orphaned, every black woman who has been widowed, and every black man who has been wrongly accused, maltreated and buried under the white man's "manifest destiny."
My first day in Sociology 101, my female African American professor told the class that it is an insult for a white person to say that they "don't see color" in regards to race. I was startled to find that my simple understanding of equality was being labeled as unjust and problematic. Afterall, what could be more equalizing than looking at myself and a person of color and seeing not our phenotypes, but two children of God, two stewards of the earth, two shepherds of humanity? The trouble, you see, is that we needed (and still do) more than an equalizer.
Allow me to step back a moment... I remember talking with another relative about systemic racism when I was in the midst of this same college sociology course. My relative told me that we all face the same kinds of struggles in life, and we all have the same choice to make: We can choose to be a victim of these trials or we can choose to rise above them and "pull ourselves up by our bootstraps." You see, my relative did not believe in racism because he believed so strongly in the idea that we make our own destiny, so to speak. Honestly, I heard so much truth in his words. I had seen members of my family truly struggle and overcome hardship and prejudice through sheer determination. Yet, it was only a half-truth that I could see through the lens of my own limited experience. Yes, there is merit in personal toughness and resilience. There is merit in self-reliance. BUT... what man has ever pulled himself up by the bootstraps when he was sinking in quicksand? Not one, I'll wager, because when a man is sinking in quicksand, he needs more than a bootstrap. He needs a lifeline.
This is one of the most misunderstood root issues of racism. Yes, ALL people are created equal. No, all ground is NOT created equal. I grew up in a household which faced real financial and emotional hardships. We knew loss and we knew pain, but my parents NEVER knew the fear of my life being threatened because of the color of our skin. I grew up in a world that taught me not to see color, which was very easy for me because I rarely did see color in my rural white community. I grew up believing that my struggle was every child's struggle, that my parents' struggles were all parents' struggles. I grew up believing that we all stood on the same ground. I now understand that this is one of many reasons why it is problematic when white people "don't see color." We can't recognize that we have built a society where some people need more than their own bootstraps to thrive, and sometimes even survive.
I have mentioned racism a few times at this point. I should note that I do not personally know one single person who is admittedly racist. I do, however, know many people who believe racism no longer exists, baffling as that may seem. Subsequently, these individuals become part of the problem of racism, the system of racism, by unconsciously maintaining the status quo. Why do people not believe in racism? I think it is because racism has evolved. It wears a more sophisticated face than it previously did and is more subtle, even more civilized, in so many ways.
When my grandparents were growing up, racism was blatantly displayed in segregation signs, refusal of black voter rights, and unprovoked violence towards black men, women, and children. It was obvious, it was heinous, and for many white people it was part of their perception of "normal." Now, the public signs are gone, but racism is still rampant in our justice system, seen in crime rates and rates of incarceration. It moves freely in our education systems and housing systems with districting and busing regulations. We have non-discrimination acts which make it illegal to refuse to hire someone on the basis of skin color or refuse housing on the basis of skin color, but we do not recognize the years of discrimination black children must overcome to even put themselves in the position to apply for college or their first job. We are complacent bystanders in the African American fight for life, justice, and equality.
If you started reading this article with the title, as most people do, you will have noticed that I refer to myself as a "white moderate." I had not named myself as such until I read Dr. King's letter. Herein lies my own culpability, because, you see, I am also part of the problem of racism. For most of my adult life, I have considered myself a people-loving, earth-loving, peace-loving individual. In rereading Dr. King's quote above, I feel convinced that I have sought out a "negative peace": free from tension, free from pain, free from the pressure of action. I have accepted society's status quo without taking the trouble to recognize how this white man's world has benefited me, a white woman. I have sought out a comfortable peace where I can believe that my power extends only as far as my own actions and the way that I treat others. While this is a start, it cannot be the finish.
We look around us, and we may think that the lives of black people have improved dramatically since the abolition of slavery. That is true, but it is not enough. Would it be enough if your children's lives were in danger? Would you halt, halfway to your goal, because someone told you it was enough or all would be well in good time? I wouldn't, and you wouldn't either.
Animals instinctively defend their progeny. Animals maintain their evolved traits by protecting their reproductive processes and their evolutionary lines. We are animals, yes, but we are so much more. Humans have evolved the ability to sympathize with others, to develop emotional attachments to people outside of our immediate families, to adopt and love another's child as our own. This is our superpower. So what's our responsibility? Our responsibility is to continually educate ourselves so that we can help uphold those with less power, those who are silenced by oppressive and unjust systems, and those who are afraid. Thoughful, sensitive, solidarity is more important now than ever.
There is pain in this world and a deep oozing wound in this country. It is a wound that has been patched over and newly bandaged from time to time without truly addressing the root cause. This particular pain is portioned out unevenly and is strongly and inversely correlated with power. It is an ugly truth that in our society, power is also correlated with the color of one's skin. In recognizing racism as a poison eating away the bonds that hold us together in our mutual humanity, we are free to lift each other above the rot of prejudice and hatred. We must continually seek for ways to empower black men and women, with our voices and our silence, with our actions and our stillness, with our lives.
Let's start walking the path of solidarity together. You can access Dr. King's letter, enlightening and moving in its contemporary relevance, via the following link:
Our stories bind us to one another, and we must choose to open our eyes, ears, minds, and hearts to the painful story of African American oppression, struggle for equality and right to life. After some research, I have added the following three books to the top of my reading list (and hope you will too):
I hope we can all find the courage to take the path less travelled and choose the unfiltered truth over whichever comfortable deception we've grown accustomed to.