Black Lives Matter

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.

Cornel West on George Floyd's Death

Extremist for Love

Monday was Martin Luther King Day in the United States, an opportunity to celebrate the life and leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  One of the many great pieces he wrote was the Letter from a Birmingham JailKing wrote this piece in the margins of a newspaper and on scraps of paper while imprisoned for nonviolent protests on April 10th, 1963 in Montgomery, Alabama.

The letter is a response to a statement made by eight Alabama clergymen condemning the Montgomery protests, describing those leading the protests as outsiders and rabble-rousers, and positioning themselves as reasonable men wanting “honest and open negotiations of racial issues in our area.”  Most of all, these clergy argued that they “do not believe…that extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.”

King’s letter is a clear, measured, but also deeply powerful response to these clergy.   His language, his eloquence, his clarity of thought and his refusal to compromise on issues of morality, rights and dignity inform the conversations we are having today about inequality and social justice.  King writes:

The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations.  He has to get them out.  So let him march sometime; let him have his prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; understand why he must have sit-ins and freedom rides.  If his repressed emotions do not come out in these non-violent ways, they will come out in ominous expressions of violence.  This is not a threat; it is a fact of history.  So I have not said to my people “get rid of your discontent.”  But I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channelized through the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.  Now this approach is being dismissed as extremist.  I must admit that I was initially disappointed in being so categorized.

But as I continued to think about the matter I gradually grained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist.  Was not Jesus an extremist in love – “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.”  Was not Amos an extremist for justice – “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”  Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ – “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.”  Was not Martin Luther an extremist – “Here I stand; I can do none other so help me God.” Was not John Bunyan an extremist – “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.”  Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist – “this nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So the question Is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be.  Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love?

We discuss this passage at length with the Acumen Fellows, pushing one another on what it means to be an “extremist for love” and asking one another if, where and when we are willing to be extremists for causes we believe in.

Are you an “extremist for love?”  Do you aspire to be one?