“First, I must confess that over the last 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 the 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; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I’m sure we have all come across stories in the news speaking of racial tension across the nation with Ferguson, MO and New York City being epicenters. Pictures of black Teenagers lying “dead” on the floors of malls on Black Friday, repeat video feeds of burning cars in Ferguson, St. Louis Rams players with their hands up, signs that read “Black Lives Matter”. The message has been sent out. Folks within the black community are angry. They feel un-valued, un-protected, un-heard.
All of this was on track to be just like every other outcry for justice received within my own personal bubble. I might have gotten angry for a moment and said a few words to my wife about how it’s ridiculous that we white people just don’t get it. In word I would have been totally supportive of the black community’s outcry–for a few minutes. Then I would have closed my computer, played with my daughter, gone to work the next day, and completely forgotten about this save a few posts on Facebook.
That’s how it would have gone. But then that train was derailed by a few friends of mine. These friends were angry. They felt un-valued, un-protected, and un-heard. So they packed into a van and headed to Ferguson.
They came back with stories. These stories both broke my heart and opened up massive doorways of hope. These stories inspired me to take it all in a bit more than I would have otherwise. These stories disoriented me. I started tossing and turning more at night. I quickly became aware that my spirituality had largely been experienced in a vacuum. Somehow I had avoided “crossing the streams” of my desire to pursue God and my desire to pursue justice. The voices of my friends (new and old) have forced me to realize that my separation of those two streams (focusing primarily on a detached spirituality) has only served to further silence their voices–to strengthen their oppression.
At first I didn’t want to believe it so I continued to blame it on extreme overtly racist groups, like the KKK. They were the problem! They directly speak out against Black, Brown, and any other minority race. It’s their fault that entire communities of people feel unsafe!
But then I listened a bit more to my friends. Before I knew it, that defense of scapegoating the KKK fell to pieces and what remained was a quote my wife had found from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I read the quote (You can find it at the top) and felt a knot in my gut. If ever there was God-Timing, it was then. I had begun to feel guilt for our current situation, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. Then from beyond the grave Dr. King spelled it out.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a tendency of mine that is restricted to Race Equality. I dislike tension in general. I get nervous around disobedience of any kind–even civil. I am constantly saying, “We need to take a breath and wait for the right moment to respectfully address this.”
It’s no surprise that I never picked up on why that could be so bad. It seems really responsible, respectful, peaceful, etc. Despite the incredibly painful knot in my gut, I am grateful to Dr. King, the many activists on the ground, and my many friends for helping me see how this posture does more to domesticate a movement than truly pursue justice and lasting peace. Disguised in “rationality and wisdom” is the most dangerous kind of racism–Ignorance and Apathy.
It’s true that apathy is often seen as intentionally not caring about something or someone. I have, however, been confronted with the reality that the ‘Moderate White’ Dr. King speaks of is the sneakiest example of apathy. It’s caring deeply in principle, while refusing to risk anything to prove it. That describes me nearly perfectly.
The hardest part about all of this is admitting that I am not speaking of this posture in the past tense. I am still that man. I still react with insecurity and discomfort when I am confronted by folks who are practicing Civil Disobedience. I have to force myself to sit in the discomfort of it all when I am in conversation with my friends, because my reflex is to say “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”.
So, what now? What can I as a White, Middle Class, Straight, Non-Disabled, American Citizen Man do to actually support the movements fighting for Racial Equality, Justice for those who are Poor, Marriage Equality, Increased Resources and Opportunities for those who have Disabilities, Immigration Reform, and Gender Equality? After years of trying to offer the “answer”, I think it’s time for me to listen to the voices coming from within those movements. Through conversations with my friends I have learned more about what that might look like in a few weeks than I have in the 29 years prior.