I wonder why I’ve never been assigned to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons and speeches and letters.

I’ve spent some time today reading a few of them, and I’m embarrassed at never having done so before.

I was reading King’s now-historically titled “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” because I went looking for some quotes from Dr. King that are lesser-known to the masses. (I do this every year because I shamefully do little else in recognition of his influence and the sacrifice of his life, and I feel like I can at least take some time to reflect, since that’s much of what he was asking us to do all those years ago.) I had found one such quote, and sought its source for context. In part, the reason I went looking for the source was because the quote, in juxtaposition with present-day electoral politics, seemed to have gained new life.

This is where I stop to think of whether it is fair to apply more universally a sentiment about the struggle to end the oppression of black people. In doing so, do I diminish the call that is unique to that people? Do I, essentially, usurp “black lives matter” in favor of “all lives matter”? Do I, as one does when espousing all lives, blunt the power of the voices raised for the 400th year against oppression of one people that still has not seen justice fully realized? Do I imply that the injustices their people have suffered are equal to injustices done to me?

I’m going to risk it with the clear implication that it is not my intention to detract, but to recognize that Dr. King, I think, would have raised his voice a lot in the last year or two to support others who are struggling for freedom and understanding.

“…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? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”
~Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Letter from a Birmingham Jail

One of the greatest things about this country is that we’re free to say whatever we want about its government and its people, but there is now an abuse of that freedom that makes some of us think it’s right to stand in our insistence and shout that dissenters are more than wrong, that they’re idiots, devils, communists, socialists, lunatics and trolls. This nation’s freedoms of speech and expression have been twisted into a compulsion to berate without conscience, and to spread it in unprecedentedly broad swaths with a keystroke. We’ve been fostered in our misguided belief that freedom of speech equates with encouragement to spout opinion at every opportunity. In the old rally cry that warns, “Don’t tread on me,” we have become the snake that eats itself.

There are no saints in a culture that champions schadenfreude.

Nowhere has this seemed more obvious than in the presidential race we are currently enduring. I am struck by how tired the spectators have been made by the marathon. We have a field of Republican candidates so pushed to extremes by its perception of a shifting base that those who were dismissed from some circles years ago for their own extremism now seem perfectly reasonable and measured. We have a field of Democratic candidates who bore us in debate because there is a less belabored circus, even while no opportunity is missed to fling bile on absent dissenters.

It is tempting, and has always been, to hate politicians for the way they spar, for the way they turn what we profess to love as a governing system into an intractable mess of complexly woven and codependent governance by spite. It is, at worst, a spiral into hell that destroys democracies. At best, it is a horror show. It’s a show of extremism and rancor directed at all who are “other.”

But what has dawned on me more and more as we watch it all unfold is that the actors take the stage for us. We have settled into the certainty that we deserve to stand firm in our thoughts with ears closed to disagreement rather than open to understanding, and hands clenched into fists rather than clasped in handshakes. We have acquired some misguided sense of having been persecuted for our perspectives, when we have suffered no indignity approaching what we inflict on others in our intransigence.

This is where I believe Dr. King’s voice would have been raised. Whether it’s those who disagree with sentiment or those who seek asylum on our shores, those who haven’t followed whatever path we presume to prescribe or those who don’t fit a 200-year-old perception of the Judeo-Christian mold, those who are criminalized for believing in a different creed or those who are hated in general for the most tangential association with the evil deeds of a most specific group, we have once again proven ourselves a nation consumed by refusal to hear and understand, so that we may preserve a status quo because to do otherwise would force us to question our self-assurance.

Politicians, after all, seek the votes of those who agree.

This election is not about politicians or politics. It is about Americans. It is about for what this nation truly stands.

And isn’t that the most terrifying thing of all?




The Problem With Privilege

I can’t possibly have anything unique to say about pretty much anything relating to over-reactive police, racial tension, media, or  anything else that factors into the trouble in Ferguson, Missouri over the last week.  But in the constructs of American life, there is a certain element that we just can’t seem to see our way through.

I’ve read a lot of reports and opinions from professionals and amateurs; one of the great ironies of the Internet is that it gives everyone the same volume at which to speak, which means people who should probably just sit down and shut up get a megaphone that amplifies their voices just as loudly as those who know far more than anyone else about whatever topic is discussed. The result, often, is the wider dissemination of what is inflammatory rather than what is rational and measured, because inflammation is more visceral and therefore more instinctive. I believe that’s why demonstrations that begin with one goal end up a melange of goals and opinions, and things that start off peacefully end up sporadically disruptive.

In everything we’ve read and seen, it seems there is a lot of visceral reaction, natural and instinctive, that leads to accusation and defense—or defensiveness. Sometimes these are overt. Other times, less so. It’s when the accusations and defenses are less obvious that I think the most trouble arises, because it’s harder to know what just happened.

To me, one of the most interesting forms of inferred accusation and applied defensiveness centers on the concept of white privilege.

For the record: I’m white. So I can’t pretend to fully grasp the perspective a person of color would bring to this situation. But I also live in a dense urban area, in a city whose majority population is black. (And I use the term “black” deliberately; not all “black” people trace their heritage to Africa, which means they are not all African-American.) In my environment, to not acknowledge white privilege is to basically stay in my house and never look out the window or turn on the news. Which isn’t to say there aren’t people in my environment who don’t understand the construct.

I used to rebel a little against the idea of white privilege, because I didn’t understand that I wasn’t being blamed for something and I wasn’t being defined as better-off, necessarily. I’m not sure when I realized what it really was, but I think it was some time around when the stalker thing happened, because it had a lot to do with what motivated me to take activist action; I realized I could use my privilege to benefit other people, not as some great, benevolent white lady, but as someone the system automatically took more seriously and cared more about because I was white. (I also speak what people would categorize as proper English, with no discernable accent.) In all of my reading this week, I have come across a few essays and op-eds from white people who are upset about being assigned a kind of privilege, saying things like, “I refuse to apologize.” The content of their writing reveals that they just don’t know the definition of white privilege.

White privilege is simply about the fact that white people do not have to deal with the possibility of being underrepresented, mistreated, suspected or demeaned, as persons of color.

For example: If I walk down the street in the dark, no one is going to look at me sideways, unless he or she is concerned for my safety. But if a person of color – a black or latino person, in my community – walks down the street in the dark, someone is going to wonder, “What’s he up to? Where did he come from? Does he live here? Where is he going?”

If I get pulled over by a police officer, I will have no reason to wonder if it’s because of my race. (The only time I got pulled over and didn’t deserve it was when an officer thought I was talking on my cell phone, and all I had to say was, “Oh! No, I wasn’t.” That is literally all I had to say. He believed me even before I offered to let him see my phone’s call and text message logs, and he let me go without checking them. If I were a man of color, the odds would be much higher that he wouldn’t believe me, or that he would take me up on my offer to see my phone’s logs.)

In fact, getting pulled over after having done nothing in violation of the law is much less likely to happen to me than it is to a person of color, and my story is more likely to be believed.

When I go through airport security, no one thinks they should look in my bag; if it’s searched, it’s purely because of a randomized approach. But when my friend Adhira goes through airport security, there’s a greater chance that someone will think that because she is Pakistani (they might not know she’s Pakistani; they’ll just know she’s brown and looks Middle Eastern), they should search her bag.

And the chances of me, a white woman with no criminal record, being shot by a police officer are essentially zero. Whereas the chances of a person of color with no criminal record being shot by a police officer are higher. Statistically speaking, even if I was armed, even if I was threatening, the chances of me being shot by a police officer are still lower than if I were an unarmed person of color. Thirty-seven of 45 people shot by police in Oakland, California between 2004 and 2008 were black. None of them were white. In 40 percent of the cases, the person who was shot was unarmed. (No officers were charged. Other shows of force were not categorized in the data set.)

My whiteness means not only that I am presumed innocent more often, but also that I am presumed more innocent than a person of color. I am presumed to be a better person. Even when I have done something wrong, and even when a person of color has not.

That’s white privilege. It’s not my fault. It’s just a side effect of my having been born white. For persons of color, suspicion is a side effect of having been born something else.

You’d be irritated about it, too, after a while.

But here’s what dawned on me while reading an essay today written by a Princeton University student some months ago: white people tend to look at privilege differently. We think of it as socioeconomic. Of course we do; we’ve never faced discrimination—or incrimination—because of anything else. So we reflexively resent when someone seems to accuse us of having an advantage, because, if we’re socioeconomically comfortable and not trust fund babies, we probably did have to work to get where we are in life. Because we have never had to struggle to be considered equal in any other respect, our only understanding of privilege comes from the idea of money. But for people of color, the struggle to be seen as equal goes way beyond lines of credit and sizes of homes. It’s rather telling, isn’t it? We define everything by our own perspective…including our own privilege. Maybe if white people were better able to understand how other people define privilege, we’d be collectively more able to understand why so many people don’t have it.

Maybe then a lot of things would get better.