“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here…Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily…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.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963
As we approach a new decade I wonder what people will say as they reflect on this past ten years in America. Will they celebrate the triumphs and decry the divisions? Will there be more to celebrate or more to bemoan? Whose version of the narrative will become the most accepted? Will they look at it as a time of important progression or a time of significant regression in race relations?
Race has always been front and center in America even when there was no real clear definition of the concept. Clearly visible physical differences as well as stark cultural differences between those from America, Europe and Africa set the stage for conflict. People value the groups they belong to in a way that they struggle to find allegiance with those from what are known as out-groups. Biases towards the in-group, automatically leads to the creation of infrastructures within societies that are designed to provide benefits for the in-group and obstructions for the out-groups.
This is not unique to America. This is the way humans have been creating the rules and regulations of the world they occupy in for millennia. Sometimes the in-groups and out-groups are based on easily identifiable things such as gender, race, ethnicity, religion or other factors. However, the diversity in America has led to significantly more fighting among in-groups and out-groups, especially along racial lines.
We have seen a rise in divisions in recent years that have led many to ignore the fact of division being a constant factor in America. As a nation, there has never been true “unity.” To expect over 300 million people to be united now is not realistic. We can desire less acrimony but it only happens by people making a concerted effort to get along with one another. It is a two-way street. If one side takes a step forward and the other takes a step back we see the way things have been working for far too many years.
Is this coming together even possible considering the current state of affairs? I’m not sure it is. What I do know and believe in my heart and soul is that to not fight for it dooms us all to a life of incredibly unnecessary stress. As Dr. King told us, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” This is absolutely undeniable.
As I look towards the future, I’m reminded to never forget the past. We have far too much we can learn from how we have treated each other for years, to not understand what our prospects for the future portend.
“The past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it, or learn from it.” – Walt Disney
I spend a great deal of time looking into our past to inform how I see the world around me. The study of history is known as historiography. Historians look for clues in the past to tell us what happened, why it happened and who made it happen among other things. It is supposed to be a very objective look at the past but by looking at what we’ve been consistently taught tells us that this is not the case in most instances.
An old African proverb tells us, “Until the lions tells its tale, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Another way of seeing this is the saying “to the victor go the spoils.” In most of human history, those who win tell the stories. Using this mindset, the winner is entitled to all of the rewards and benefits of success.
I want this to change. Far too much of what we’ve learned in our history classes has been from the perspective of those who have ruled the out-groups of our society with an iron fist. By controlling the narrative of the past, it is easy to maintain power for in-groups. Dr. King spoke about privileged groups not voluntarily giving up their privilege in his famous letter. Frederick Douglas also informed us that, “power concedes noting without a struggle.”
Psychology provides us with an understanding of how this idea manifests itself in our society. Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) is what Thomas Pettigrew describes as “an individual’s preference for the societal hierarchy of groups and domination over lower-status groups. It represents a predisposition toward anti-egalitarianism within and between groups. Individuals who score high in SDO are typically dominant, driven, tough-minded, disagreeable, and relatively uncaring seekers of power.” Who the lower status groups are today is much the same as they were at the founding of the nation.
This SDO is an element of the current mindset of far too many Americans. It is not new. We find copious evidence of this principle playing a role in the nations’ history. We are seeing the latest manifestations of this in many current political arguments and policies. The part that is most troubling for me is the ‘uncaring” part. We see so many accounts of uncaring by individuals but far more of this in our politics, especially on the national level, not just from the White House, but from Congress and our federal courts as well. Uncaring seems to have become the norm.
My friend and mentor Dr. James Cameron spoke often about what he called “freedom-loving white people.” These are the white people that have been friends of enslaved Africans, Native Americans, Mexicans and Asian Americans who have fought for inclusion in this country. They spoke out against the theft of Native American land. These individuals joined with Africans and became voices of abolitionism among their white peers. They joined with Mexicans and Mexican Americans in fighting deportation in the 1930s through 1950s. During the years of domination and control of Asians, they spoke out against the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and further efforts to make Asians second-class citizens. They joined the picket lines with Cesar Chavez and marched in Selma with Dr. King.
Some people of color believe there are no such white people. They believe all whites are racists and complicit in the supremacy of whites over all non-whites in America. Dr. Cameron saw this to be untrue as a teenager when a friendly Sheriff protected him and treated him like a son while he awaited his trial as an accessory before the act of manslaughter in 1930 after he survived a brutal lynching and the brutal deaths of his two friends Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp. He spoke of Sheriff Bradley in his memoir as a man who helped change his heart and mind.
If this courageous man could see beyond his anger after being taken out of a jail by a mob of 15,000 angry whites intent on killing him and his two friends Abe and Tommy, what is our excuse? I grew up in Jim Crow Mississippi. My family was treated horribly for well over one hundred years in that state. I’ve heard some of the horrific stories. Emmett Till was kidnapped less than forty miles from my hometown. The Klan is still active in Mississippi. A twenty-five foot tall Confederate Statute stands right next to the Tallahatchie County Courthouse in my hometown. It says these words on the monument dedicated by the daughters of the Confederacy to “Our Heroes” who sacrificed for the Confederate cause:
“To the sons of Tallahatchie, who gave their hopes, their lives, their all for the grand old southern cause.”
That “southern cause” was the system of laws that allowed the enslavement of nearly four million blacks including many of my family members on the eve of the Civil War. Mississippi expressed in their letter of secession when breaking away from the Union why they did so. This is what they said:
“In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth… and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin… That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove…It advocates negro equality, socially and politically, and promotes insurrection and incendiarism in our midst… Utter subjugation awaits us in the Union, if we should consent longer to remain in it. It is not a matter of choice, but of necessity. We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers, to secure this as well as every other species of property. For far less cause than this, our fathers separated from the Crown of England.
Our decision is made. We follow their footsteps. We embrace the alternative of separation; and for the reasons here stated, we resolve to maintain our rights with the full consciousness of the justice of our course, and the undoubting belief of our ability to maintain it.”
For those who argue that the Civil War was about anything other than slavery the evidence is clear in these words that slavery was without a doubt the cause of the war. The system of Jim Crow segregation, massive doses of violence and disenfranchisement in all walks of life was legally instituted not just in the South, but also around the nation.
Along the way, some friendly whites were willing to buck the system. The whites who formed a major part of the Underground Railroad sacrificed their privilege to help fight for the rights of black people. They risked their lives and livelihood to help blacks find a path to freedom. The Underground Railroad’s path took many blacks through the state of Wisconsin.
There were never enough of these courageous people though. There is still not enough of these “freedom-loving white people.” Far too many whites are uncounted in this group. I know many who are included. I applaud their efforts. I cherish their friendship. I’ve met them in Milwaukee, Wausau, Burlington, La Crosse, Racine, Port Washington, Wauwatosa, Green Bay, Beloit and dozens of other cities and towns that have invited my business partner Dr. Fran Kaplan and I along with our community dialogue facilitators of our firm Nurturing Diversity Partners to help them do the difficult and worthwhile work of racial justice advocacy.
Many told us that white people in our suburbs and rural communities would not be willing to listen or join with us in this work. They were wrong. We are grateful for those who’ve joined us in solidarity. It keeps us somewhat optimistic that we can make some leeway in this work.
As we move into this New Year my greatest fear is that there are still too few whites that have open hearts and minds and are willing to share with people of color. So many show on a regular basis that they are unwilling to let go of their hatred and prejudice. Racism is alive and well within too many spaces in the white community. These are not things that are hidden from other whites. They see and hear the manifestations of racism daily. Unfortunately they don’t say or do anything to stop it in many cases. It’s not easy to do for sure but white people must be more willing to try. They need to find the words to make the case for racial justice.
Too many white people have stood by over the years claiming to be friends of our communities while turning a blind eye to their racist family members, friends, co-workers and neighbors. Some have also stood by and celebrated as mobs hung and burned black people alive in mass lynchings. Thousands of white people took part in race riots where ethnic cleansing of blacks took place. These individuals had family members who no doubt disapproved of these types of things. Their voices of outrage were like whispers as medical examiners said, “this person died at the hands of persons unknown.”
I fear that the peer pressure to conform to a lifestyle that privileges whites at the same time denying access to privilege for non-whites is too strong. Many whites fear losing relationships and friendships with those who openly express their racist beliefs. I fear that these white people are not courageous enough to speak out as their leaders treat immigrants, refugees and their families in an inhumane fashion. I fear that too many white people will continue to refuse to do enough to speak out against racist immigration policies. I fear that too many white people will continue to allow their nation to snatch children from their families at the border without making it stop. I cringe when I realize that many white people stood by and allowed the country to ban immigration from Muslim countries while at the same time professing to believe in “freedom of religion.” I fear that too many white people have little compassion for unarmed blacks killed by police. I fear that the messages of hate and division coming from elected officials will continue to be ignored by too many white people. I fear that far too many white people embrace these messages.
At the same time I feel some hope. I hope that the work that I do will continue to educate whites about the history of America that they don’t learn in school. I hope they take what they learn and use it to begin conversations with the people they have influence over. It is my sincere hope that they will come out of the woodwork and speak up loudly and proudly for compassion, equality, equity and justice. I hope that the small numbers of “freedom-loving white people” will continue to grow into legions of “freedom-loving white people.” I hope 2020 opens up a new space for those whites to do this work without fear. I hope that my work is not in vain. I hope that we are not depending on those same types of white moderates Dr. King warned us about “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…”
I hope that at some point we see the ship turn towards that place Dr. King spoke about where we will see evidence that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
It will only happen if more white people believe the words of the Declaration of Independence and live out that creed in their daily lives.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”