First things first: Don’t read me, read MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, for a poke and prod of motivation.
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. 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 had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fan in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
Not two weeks since a white-nationalist riot at the nation’s capital, it seems hard to zoom out, to take a wider view of racial politics. We don’t need to erase the rise and endurance of Trumpism from our evaluation. The recrudescence of the violent, conspiratorial right wing is in explicit reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement: BLM is the arch-villain in their alternate-reality cinematic universe. The “white moderate” waiting for a “more convenient season” gives the same answer as the MAGA-hat whatabouting the supposed destructiveness of BLM: Whether decorous or abrasive, No is No.
Some people with political power and status feel threatened today. Their status may be imagined or real; it might be economic, or racial-caste-based; but they feel their world is being upended. In a way, they are right. I’m not alone in thinking this moment in our racial history feels different, more pregnant with possibility. That’s why the reactionaries are reacting.
This is evident in the Georgia Senate victories and here as well. In Boston and Massachusetts, the political scene is actually changing, in personnel and in policy, and in the assumptions about what is achievable. As Marty Walsh goes to Washington, Kim Janey will become the first Black woman mayor of Boston. The city just added the Obama administration’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule to its zoning code, to counter the legacy — sorry, the current practices, actually — of discrimination and displacement.
On the state level, the legislature just passed amendments to the climate bill addressing environmental- and energy justice, increasing low-income access to solar power (which the Governor vetoed, of course). The legislature passed a police reform bill — not as strong as it should be, but nonetheless its passage proved that the political juice of police unions has its limits; the Governor specifically cited the power of the Black and Latino caucus when signing the bill. Last year the state passed a major restructuring of school funding which is supposed to especially help low-income communities of color — although, perversely, the state is not obligated to actually find the money to find the money! The incomplete, provisional quality of these measures is proof of the challenges they faced. Nonetheless, they exist, a foundation to build upon. Nothing is complete.
History is not progress. Whatever gains have been made by previous generations are long since compounded, and the passage of time eats into the principal. As Keynes observed, in the long run we’re all dead. Any parent knows how fast kids grow up, how time flies; how much more so for children growing up in deprivation as the result of discrimination — especially as COVID rends wider the gap of inequality. Those kids will not get their childhoods back; they’re not experiencing “progress” right now — just the opposite.
But in spite of all the darkness we see in on this very day, we are nonetheless living in a window of opportunity for action. And as Sonia Chang-Diaz said on the Senate floor last year, that window may close. How much policy will improve the lived reality of African-Americans is another question still. But if we don’t appreciate what’s happening right now, and identify progress when it happens, I fear we’ll neglect to defend it when it’s under attack. But it surely should be motivating to those who have taken the last few months, or years, or a lifetime, to try to push this boulder uphill.