Martin Luther King Jr. frequently expressed his frustration with the white moderate of his time and their preference for order and polite conversation over justice and direct action. After several days of social media dialogue I have a few frustrations with the “moderates” of our day, so I made some notes (thanks for reading):
We must stop making our conversation about racism about your political orientation of right and left rather than good vs evil. Racism is evil and those who attempt to divert the conversation or change the subject or offer whataboutisms are not neutral, they are advancing the interests of racists whether that is their intent or not.
There are some truly evil people who embrace racial conflict in pursuit of white supremacy, and those people want you to see violence and destruction as discrediting of the activist cause, so they are going out to incite more violence and destruction themselves. This has been documented many places and several white people already face formal charges for it. Not only is this despicable behavior but the fact that it works relies on a common error of thinking called ad hominem: That the truth or validity of a point is dependent on the character of the person advancing it. This is incorrect thinking. Evaluate the cause on its own merits not your perception of the person making the case whether they are looting or peaceful has no relevance to whether their cause is just.
Likewise the questions of whether black people on the whole have it harder in America than white people ought to have long been put to rest. Now that video cameras are omnipresent we have endless documentation of the claims black people have been making for decades that they face incidents of racism large and small with great frequency, often putting at risk their physical safety. We can also refer to endless statistics on the black experience in America that black people on average have fewer advantages and more obstacles to prosperity for all sorts of reasons both because of structural institutions and interpersonal biases. There are volumes of evidence to document these facts. Google is your friend (if you know how to evaluate reliable sources).
Saying All Lives Matter in response to Black Lives Matter is technically espousing a morally correct and true statement but doing it in a way that makes you a giant asshole. Our moral obligations to one another vary greatly based on the situational needs we face. We don’t tell starving children that all hunger matters, we don’t tell grieving widows that all husbands matter, and we don’t tell people raising a go fund me for their medical bills that all medical debts matter. We help them, because they are struggling and we can do something about it. We acknowledge their pain and take action to help if we can.
Also the resistance that you feel to directly embracing the needs and desires of black people by merely uttering Black Lives Matter is itself a remnant of our long racist history. White attempts to use the language of “Colorblindness” to pursue a solutions to racial injustice mask the way those injustices came to be. It would be like seeing an angry mob burn down a house in your neighborhood and then suggesting a universal tax credit for home renovations will fix it. Sure that might be a small help to the person whose house just burned down, but what about that angry mob? How do we stop them from doing it again? And what will it take for the victim to actually rebuild their house? The sensible response to direct harm is not neutral policy, it is direct action to make them whole.
Even a cursory reckoning with America’s history of slavery, segregation,and discrimination over hundreds of years requires that we be honest that black people were uniquely victimized and in some ways should be uniquely made whole. The longstanding resistance of white people to this conversation because of the obvious sacrifices it would entail is at the center of our desire for less dangerous conversations centered on colorblindness and first principles rather than reckoning with history. All Lives Matter is not only a callous and tone deaf response, it is an attempt to divert us from hard and honest conversations and this fact is itself a remnant of racism.
All this being said I want to acknowledge that conversations about intergenerational justice are messy and complex and hard. The duties we have to one another across history for the sins of our ancestors is a tough area of moral examination. But there are two things I would encourage you to keep in mind:
- Relationships are the key unit of change. American life is segregated in a multitude of ways and this prevents a majority of white people from having any real relationships with black people. Think about why this is in your own life and take steps to undo it. Structural things like where we live and the schools we send our kids to, the churches we attend the social clubs we participate in are often segregated for all kinds of reasons, some benign and some less so. At the core of many of these divides is white people’s subconcious acceptance of the idea that white spaces are safe and comfortable and diverse spaces are dangerous and uneasy. You must fight this instinct and work to overcome it through greater diversity of experiences. This will allow you to establish real relationships naturally with a broader set of people and over time to come to better understand their perspective.
- Approach questions of racial justice from a mindset of abundant mutual flourishing rather than one of zero sum scarcity. There are likely to be some short term costs and sacrifices to pursuing a more just society, but we are lucky to live in the most prosperous society in human history and we can afford to find the resources we need without overburdening ourselves. And in the long run, a world that is more just is a better world for everyone. It is a world with less tension and unrest, and where we can all actually start to set aside the burdens of our ugly history. The process of undoing racist institutions and opening hearts and minds to real relationships across these boundaries is unequivocally living into what we ought to be and an essential part of a flourishing society. Remember this when there is tension or difficult conversations, because they will come. But they are worth it.