Direct action


For better or worse, most of my friends are white. Contrary to the hoary racist apologetic, this fact alone doesn’t mean that I can’t be racist against white people. (Certainly, Rush Limbaugh’s three failed marriages and one yet-to-fail marriage don’t mean that he can’t be sexist.) Perhaps I am a racist, perhaps I am incredibly adept at masking that fact from the many white people I interact with every day, and perhaps this means that I am no more objective in my evaluation of white people, white racism, and white apologia than, well, a white person. But I don’t think so. (And it wouldn’t make for an engaging blog post if I set the metaphorical pen down here.) So, at the risk of unsoundly assuming that I have something interesting to contribute to this topic, I’ll proceed.

I remember having a conversation about Black Lives Matter with some of my white friends a few months ago. One pair of friends, a married couple, had lived in Columbia, Missouri during the 2015 protests over race at the University of Missouri. The woman recounted walking down a sidewalk on campus during the protests and being berated by black protestors who yelled, “White silence is violence”. She was offended and hurt and less sympathetic towards the protestors as a result. She felt that she had been unfairly lumped in with the white racists. She wanted them to know that she truly wasn’t a racist, and that she had stood up against casual racism in the past. Most of all, she felt that she was a victim of reverse racism – the prejudice of being judged solely based on the color of your skin rather than the content of your character. Maybe black people had a point, she suggested, but their tactics were all wrong.

I attempted to defend the protestors and blabbered half-coherently for a few minutes, but I quickly found myself woefully outnumbered. I was the only one of the five participants in this argument who was supportive of BLM and similar-minded protests. And it wasn’t as if I was surrounded by readers of the National Review or (worse yet) a pudgy, middle-of-the-road New York Times op-ed columnist (not to name names). Sadly enough, some of my interlocutors were white liberals who I naively believed would be sympathetic.

So let’s dissect my friend’s argument. I’ll admit that it sounds superficially persuasive. Judging people by their skin color is an unequivocal sin, right?

It’s worth noting that these strident black voices were judging my friend for being silent, not for being “racist”, at least in the sense of crude stereotypes or offensive language. And, in that, they were perfectly correct. She was silent. If they were calling her a racist (and, I don’t think they were), it was only to the extent that her silence could be construed as condoning injustice. If I may take the liberty of putting words in their mouths: being a white person who doesn’t use the N-word is no longer good enough. White people must be activists as well, and they must use their voices on behalf of those who are frequently mocked, ignored, or viewed as incorrigible race-baiters or victim-players.

I also found the emphasis on tactics interesting. The idea that black people would win in the court of opinion if only they did x and not y, is, much like white silence, a long and hallowed tradition. There’s the obvious trolling of right-wingers like Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who said about the recent NFL anthem protests, “I think if the debate is really, for them, about police brutality, they should probably protest the officers on the field that are protecting them instead of the American flag.” (As if she would support Kaepernick if he took her advice.) There are also those right wingers, like Brian Kilmeade, who claim that there is some unspecified better way to do things: “There’s many ways to protest. You have a national anthem, we all should agree we are Americans. You are at work. You don’t stand up in the middle of our workplace and start creating chaos, because we get fired.”

But there are also those white moderates who claim to be sympathetic to Kaepernick’s message yet are simultaneously bothered by his medium. Enter, David Brooks (of course). He writes,

This column is directed at all the high school football players around the country who are pulling a Kaepernick — kneeling during their pregame national anthems to protest systemic racism. I’m going to try to persuade you that what you’re doing is extremely counterproductive.

If these common rituals are insulted, other people won’t be motivated to right your injustices because they’ll be less likely to feel that you are part of their story. People will become strangers to one another and will interact in cold instrumentalist terms.

You will strengthen Donald Trump’s ethnic nationalism, which erects barriers between Americans and which is the dark opposite of America’s traditional universal nationalism.

I hear you when you say you are unhappy with the way things are going in America. But the answer to what’s wrong in America is America — the aspirations passed down generation after generation and sung in unison week by week.

Brooks hears you. He understands your unhappiness – but he doesn’t agree with the way that you are expressing it. He thinks he knows the correct response to oppression, police brutality, mass incarceration, and white supremacy. The answer is, apparently, “America”. Set aside the fact that oppression, brutality, mass incarceration, and white supremacy are as American as apple pie. We just have to sing more loudly (and more in unison!) to drown those thoughts out.

Unsurprisingly, Brooks also invokes the name of Martin Luther King, Jr., who “sang the national anthem before his “I Have a Dream” speech and then quoted the Declaration of Independence within it.” Ah, yes, the “I Have a Dream” speech – the favorite exhortation of white conservatives everywhere. So pithy, so quotable, so inoffensive. If only Colin Kaepernick and Richard Sherman and Deray McKesson and Jonathan Butler could be more like MLK.

(And that’s not satire either. The Federalist ran a lengthy article by Mark Hemingway entitled, “What the NFL Could Learn From MLK and the Civil Rights Protests”. Hemingway lays out the five lessons of the civil rights movement that today’s protestors have yet to grasp. My favorite bit is this paragraph, which is almost too laughable to be real: “But I don’t believe MLK and the canny civil rights leaders of yore would have thought Trump a lost cause politically, even if they found him personally offensive. Trump has shown he’s willing to deal with people at opposite ends of the political spectrum, especially when it gets him good press. If Trump could burnish his legacy and reputation with new measures on civil rights—and there’s actual room for bipartisan consensus here on issues such as education reform, economic initiatives for black communities, and federal oversight of police shootings—aren’t the odds pretty good he’d jump at the chance?”)

Here’s a passage from MLK that Brooks and Hemingway might be less familiar with. It’s from King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which white conservatives should read as sedulously as they do King’s “content of their character” aphorism.

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.

It is striking how little has changed in 50 years. Compare, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action” to white NFL quarterback Drew Brees’s “I agree with his protest. I don’t agree with his method”.

White people have always felt that black people are doing it wrong. King’s March on Washington was viewed favorably by 22% of people and unfavorably by 63%. In 1961, the same percentage of people approved of the Freedom Riders and 61% disapproved. 57% of people thought that sit-ins would “hurt the Negro’s chances of being integrated in the South.” White moderates and conservatives may adulate King and John Lewis and Rosa Parks today, but back in the 60s these same people would have been encouraging them to “to wait for a more convenient season.”

Let’s return to my white friend, and the question of whether the tactics of black protestors are effective or counterproductive. My friend didn’t just dislike being unfairly grouped with white racists. She also disliked the fact that she had to make a decision, that she could no longer ignore the issue and hope it would disappear. I think King himself said it best:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

The point of uttering “white silence is violence” was not to make friends. It was to force the lines between friends and enemies to be drawn indelibly. It was not to please the ears of passersby. It was to attune their ears to the presence of a conversation about race, a conversation that they had previously shunned. It was not to lump all white people together with KKKers and white supremacists. It was to suggest that those white people who remain silent in the face of racial injustice and white supremacy are complicit in it. We are, as King suggests, “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny”. The great problem with race in this country is that most white people have not truly internalized this lesson.


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