It’s hard to know what to say at a time like this, shrouded as I am in privilege and what Ta-Nehisi Coates aptly calls a “belief in being white.”
What we know is that the response to the murder of George Floyd is the boiling over of longstanding, simmering, justified rage at the systemic institutionalization of white supremacy in this country.
This means it is long past the time to talk about, acknowledge, and take steps to rectify all the ways that white people benefit from and therefore are complicit in this system.
Which is to say: if you are a person who believes yourself to be white, and if you’ve concluded that it’s enough simply not to be actively and overtly racist, I’d encourage you to take time to stop and reflect.
Most days, I find it breathtakingly, astonishingly easy to ignore my own privilege and advantage in this America that I live in. This means that I have more than my own fair share of work and reflection to do about my personal complicity in, and, by definition, daily endorsement of all of the ugly, undeniable truths that have been laid bare about this country.
That’s my work to do.
And lest I, or you, think that our moderate, progressive views are somehow an improvement on the active, fetid, ugly racism increasingly on display across so much of this country, I’ll offer up this passage from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
First, I must confess that over the past 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 his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler 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 cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
I’ve had the privilege to lead discussions of this text with social entrepreneurs from the U.S., Kenya and India. The most shocking, nearly universal conclusion that every one of these groups of progressive, bold and brave activists has come to, collectively, is that we are all, nearly all the time, white moderates.
Whatever our progressive thoughts and liberal ideals, we cling to our comfort through our daily actions and routines, and, in so doing, live out more devotion to ‘order’ than to justice.
Self-education, fellowship, use of our privilege and power to dismantle the foundation of the corrupted system we find so normal…these are first green shoots of how we can all show up, each day, and demonstrate greater devotion to justice.
And if you’re hanging on to the notion that what’s going is anything less than the laying bare of a foundational failure to deliver justice in this country, I encourage you to listen to Dr. Cornel West’s take on America as a failed social experiment.
6 thoughts on “Black Lives Matter”
This is a great article. The quote from MLK Jr. could not be more relevant today. It made me stop and think, which is the point. My frustration is that there are a small group of people who turn the meaningful protests into chaos. Some of them are there just to take advantage of the chaos. I can never condone burning the businesses of innocent people no more than I can condone the racism that continues to exist in our society. When I read, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action,” I have to think. Who is “you” in his profound statement? I don’t think it’s the few who continue to burn, harm, and destroy innocent people and businesses. It was also MLK who said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” How can we learn to love eachother? That’s the conversation I’d love to see more of. What a wonderful world it would be if we could figure it out. It shouldn’t be so difficult. I think it begins with another great quote, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” The “white moderates” need to seek first to understand. Again, I believe that a small group is overshadowing what we all need to be focusing on right now. The violence is getting too much of the media’s attention and, as the media loves to do, creates more outrage rather than understanding. It’s OK, in my opinion, to “not agree” with the methods of those few, even if I understand it.
Hi Sascha. Thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. As you are someone white who has done far more than most to address systemic injustice by driving the evolution of capitalism toward a stakeholder-centric model, I am very interested in hearing you unpack this statement: “Whatever our progressive thoughts and liberal ideals, we cling to our comfort through our daily actions and routines, and, in so doing, live out more devotion to ‘order’ than to justice…. Self-education, fellowship, use of our privilege and power to dismantle the foundation of the corrupted system we find so normal…these are first green shoots of how we can all show up, each day, and demonstrate greater devotion to justice….” I’d like to hear specifically whether you feel that what you are doing is effectively moving you out of “white moderate” and into “anti-racist”? Could you give examples?
And, if you do not feel that way, or do not feel that you are in a position to say one way or the other, who is, and could we invite them to offer an opinion?
How about this: I live a life of a lot of comfort and have the privilege every day to have that life and not put it at risk. While I’ve time and again made professional choices in favor of work that I believe is the most highly-leveraged way I can, with my particular background, knowledge and skills, contribute to making the world a more fair, just and equitable place, the level of personal sacrifice that these choices have entailed is indeed very small, perhaps nonexistent.
So I am absolutely sure there is much, much more I can do. The question I’m asking myself is: why does such a gap exist between my ideals and my actions?
Thanks for this additional reflection. It sounds like although you’ve found a through line that aligns your professional goals with your stated values, you haven’t often felt uncomfortable, and you’re questioning whether you should find ways to feel more uncomfortable in the service of moving the status quo to a better place, am I hearing you? I appreciate that.
I’m not sure comfort / discomfort is the axis I’m describing. I’ve felt plenty uncomfortable in lots of situations. I was focusing on the phrase you highlighted, about the much more challenging tension between order and justice, and acknowledging that “order” is very comfortable for me and for all people of privilege, and what I feel I need to question honestly is what I am willing to give up in service of justice.
An interesting question for us all.