Truth is, I love you like you’re my brother. And I respect you. And I think that as a cop you have a lot of courage to do what you do—a lot of willingness and self-sacrifice. I’m grateful to have those kinds of things in my friends. Thank you.
And while you are in more danger than I ever was as a public school teacher, I have come to believe that these are comparable jobs insofar as one can be a good teacher, or a good cop, and still belong to a system that needs to be critiqued and improved.
I was not a bad person because I belonged to what I have always thought was a bad system; no, in fact I think I was a good teacher. I think I earned the respect of my students and their parents. I think I changed lives. But I also think the public schooling system is a horrendous way to educate our children. I did not take it personally, then, as a harm to myself, when someone slammed the public education system; instead I had to listen with an open mind, then go on teaching as best I could, even if I agreed with them.
A better example, though, would be this: I am what many call a pacifist (though I take issue with “pacifism” as a concept and term), and I believe that military force which takes human life is immoral—but I also respect and love and am grateful for the points of view of those who are in the military. So even though I disagree with the system they belong to, I do not undermine them or their courage.
In the same way, while I uphold our friendship and love you as a brother, there are also things I have come to believe about our country’s (and the police’s) relationship with the poor, and with racial minorities (especially those we colonized or conquered in the past, such as First Nations people, Latinos, and Black Americans), that demonstrate a large system that needs critiquing even today and even while the police may themselves not be bigoted individuals.
It is very complicated and nuanced, this position of maintaining unity between us while having such different views, but I suppose all that’s to be expected. Here we are, the descendants of powerful people, who because of this power cannot see our history well. Our nation does not know how to handle the past, either. We don’t know how to grieve the horrors of the past and move forward from the conquering and colonization of peoples whose suffering we gained from. We turn a blind eye on how, say, we “evacuated” Oklahoma of First Nations people in order to give it away to white Americans. We do not think twice about redlining and how Black Americans have been kept from building wealth; we demonize the poor descendants of once-conquered peoples while forgetting the genocide and enslavement that fortified our ability to produce wealth through “good, honest hard work.” And when echoes of these injustices grow loud, we scramble to silence the past.
But it won’t stay silent. Dissonance resounds.
I think you and I disagree about these things. Even so, I’m mostly comfortable with our disagreement, though of course I wish you’d be persuaded to see things my way, since at bottom I believe what I see is closer to justice—justice which hopes for your partnership. Still, I hope to refrain from fostering an “apartness” between us, and from sustaining poor critical reasoning between friends, so I accept our disagreements for the most part.
Since I consider you someone worth disagreeing with but loving nonetheless; since I have known you for years and want you in my life; since I respect you: I offer you a bit of what I’ve come to believe and how I’ve come to believe it. We may disagree at the end of it, but it moves us toward a deeper conversation with each other, which I am willing to enter into.
I was attending lectures of a class (called Understanding Race & Sex Historically) that my writing students were enrolled in, and I was reading the books on the syllabus, etc. (one was called The History of White People, which is so so good, though I acknowledge the provocative title that likely turns a lot of people away), and taking notes about the history of racism.
The professor was a legal historian who lectured through the history of racism by showing how American laws had built bias and oppression into the foundations of our country. It was an incredibly insightful semester, one that caused me to doubt the history I had memorized, or at least the angles of heroism I had once learned to love. Sure, over the years I’d heard rumors of “Your American heroes aren’t all they’re cracked up to be,” but I’d never really sat down to study the other side.
In great part because of this class, I saw that much of what I once believed (whether expressly or passively) about the racial history of America is incomplete, is biased in favor of the (mostly white) rich, and exists largely without my interrogating it (which makes my former passive beliefs as or more harmful than any expressed belief I might have had).
I recommend The History of White People, for sure—it’s by a historian from Princeton, Nell Irvin Painter, who helped me name some of my own misconceptions about race (especially that race is a social construct, a scientific myth, something fake I’ve been told is real, so that I have ascribed certain attributes to certain races).
These descriptions of white people—which emphasize that whiteness is a myth created by “the people who need to be white” in order to separate themselves from “black” people and “red” people—rhetorically work their way into my thinking: need to be white; want to be white. Not just “white.”
Because “white” is fake, is a fantasy, is the result of a demand to be powerful because 17th-century Virginian lawmakers made it so. This myth has been very powerful for me and for American culture as a whole. And it has caused so much suffering. And it persists as a social reality even though it’s a scientific fiction.
(I believed the fiction, to some degree, for a long time.)
Anyhow, even though the legal historian’s lectures opened me up to historical perspectives I hadn’t considered before, and even though Black Lives Matter was a real and functioning organization then, I hadn’t really been fully “converted” to this new way of thinking. #BLM was more or less just one of many causes, from my point of view.
Then somewhere along the way, it occurred to me to ask, “When did the Civil Rights Movement end?”
This was the most interesting and upsetting question I had going in my head for a few months. Because, growing up, I (passively, unreflectively) thought the Civil Rights Movement was a discrete movement—with a beginning and an end. And I think that, while I’d never asked the question before, I believed the Civil Rights Movement had ended when Martin Luther King was killed, or I guess I just sort of assumed that’s when it ended. And I also believed—not outright, but implicitly, passively, unreflectively—that the Movement had been a success: MLK had “won.” MLK was the “good guy” who had beat bad racism. He got a holiday on his birthday like Lincoln and Washington. He was in my history books in black & white pictures, proving his victories were from long ago and I didn’t need to worry about them. He was celebrated and allowed into the fold of great Americans. So we totally understood his message and realized the Dream, I thought.
The backwardness of that thought didn’t hit me for a long time, until I intentionally sought out answers. How did his assassination end racism? Wasn’t his assassination instead evidence that racism was alive and well?
In fact, right before he was killed, he wrote a book, Where Do We Go from Here?: Chaos or Community, describing how he believed the work was just getting started.
Rather than think, then, that MLK’s death was somehow the end of a successful civil rights movement, I instead came to believe that MLK was a martyr of an unfinished movement, that his Dream was never realized, and that while he’d helped Americans move toward unity there was a long way to go.
But what more work was there to do?
I had never imagined that as a good question, and I had never imagined that there was even a possible answer to that question, since I’d (passively) believed that MLK had won, that the work was finished.
Yet there it is—this question exists and demands an answer: What more work is there to do?
The question isn’t mine to answer, but to ask—and to listen to others answer—since I am now totally outside of my own wisdom and experience.
A very powerful part of my coming to believe this was that I had, for years and years, taught MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to my writing students, but I began to see something new in it. The letter itself is a beautiful appeal to the white clergy in Birmingham who had written an open Letter to the Editor criticizing MLK’s presence and actions in Birmingham. They said he was “untimely” and “unwise.” They talked about how he should wait and how justice, in God’s time, would come about. (They were much like the white liberals who booed the BLM activists as they disrupted Bernie Sanders’s speech: sympathetic with the aims but against their means—but more on that soon.)
Teaching MLK’s letter from my fomer point of view—from the point of view that agreed racism was wrong but that MLK had “won” and the Civil Rights Movement was over—I just sort of moved through how powerfully King responds to his contemporaries: how he appeals to them on every level, how he so intellectually makes a case that I, forty & fifty years removed, can now see clearly.
Of course, King was right; of course, the clergy were wrong. But I only see that as one who believes his time can be analyzed justly from my vantage point, from the “other side” of racism (as though we somehow have reached that “other side.”)
But, having today changed my point of view—now believing that the Civil Rights Movement hadn’t succeeded completely, that there is not (yet) an “other side” of racism, that King’s death made him a martyr, not a victor—I have begun to see that the white clergy had a lot in common with, say, Fox News commentators and well-meaning conservative Christians (my friends and family) who, like the clergy of MLK’s day, tried to explain to King how despite King’s (and the rest of Black America’s) expressed suffering, white America somehow still knew better than King did.
White people telling Black people what’s up about Black experience, about Black expression, about Black protest: it looks very familiar to me. And it made me believe that now I lived in a time of a new (or continuing but newly vigorous) Civil Rights Movement. And history told me that the most reliable people about Black suffering were not white people in power, but the Black people who were suffering.
Show me the way, then, has become my new posture.
That is, I give credibility to and trust the voices who shouted out, who cried out, whose only form of “evidence” in their arguments were things like, “If he’d been white the police officer never would have…” And when I replay scenarios (like Trayvon Martin & Mike Brown & Ezell Ford, etc.) in my head, now with white men being stopped instead, I find that I can only agree. Their point of view comes from their experience; the only thing that has changed is…I believe them.
It turns out, though, that I implicate myself as having bought into racist (or, white supremacist) lies, since I actually have to do the computation in my head in order for the truth to be clear to me: that is, my need to consciously give those voices credibility, and my need to pause and ask myself, “If he’d been white…” means that, deep down, to me, “Black people aren’t fully human.” This is the message I have learned in my country, in my community, in my “Oh, come on, I was just joking!” culture and background.
This is pretty uncomfortable for me to realize about myself, because I find I’ve been complicit. I am part of the problem. And this breaks my heart.
And still, I recognize people like me everywhere: well-meaning white people like me (though I am brown, too, but whatever, since for most of my life I self-identified more with my white friends and family…) who have all their lives thought in the same matrix of reasoning that led me to believe (1) race was somehow real, that (2) Black people are in some (perhaps un-nameable) way fundamentally different from me, so that (3) because of that difference I don’t relate to their pain as I ought to.
The mythology leading me there is powerful, though not always this obvious. And I have to realize that. I have to learn to doubt myself, and my formal education, and (even my implicit) beliefs about race.
So I found new people to teach me. Cornel West was one of those. I heard him speak at CSULA (where Black Lives Matter LA cofounder Melina Abdullah is chair of the Pan African Studies department) to defend to the president of the university why Pan African Studies ought to be among the General Education requirements for all students—not just a major or minor or set of electives. It was the most stirring lecture I’d ever listened to.
One line stands out to me, which again revealed my implicit agreements, my complicity, with white supremacy: he said,
“Anybody who thinks they can understand Modernity—not just Malcolm X, but John Coltrane, W.E.B. Dubois, E. Franklin Frazier, Duke Ellington, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Angela Davis, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, Nina Simone, The Dramatics and The Whispers—if you think you can understand America, if you think you can understand the modern world, if you think you can understand what it means to be human without Black Studies, the doings and sufferings of Africans in the New World, it means you haven’t had a strong enough commitment to truth and justice.” (The true speech, after the introductions and thank-yous, begins at 35:00.)
But I’d only ever understood Modernity through Descartes, Locke, Kant, Jefferson, Pound, Eliot, Wolfe, Stein, etc. I’d only ever seen my history through white ideas, not through Black suffering. Black people had never entered into it, except as they appeared in my college electives, like in classes called “The Harlem Renaissance.” If West was right, though, I needed a stronger commitment to truth and justice—and I had plenty to learn, especially since I didn’t know many of the names on his list.
How many millions of people throughout how many hundreds of years—how many voices crying out had I been taught never to hear? And how ought this Black suffering belong to my education, to my intellectual life, and finally to my actions in the world?
This insight hurt me. I’d compartmentalized the ideas of white men from the sufferings forced on Blackness. And I hadn’t seen that they belonged to one another inextricably.
So I began to fish around for answers to other questions. And I hold my face to the fire each time I learn a new insight, which was and continues to be a spiritual discipline for me, a kind of prayer of repentance, a kind of confession—since whenever I learn some new insight, that feeling of insight correlates to my complicity in white supremacy, because the only reason I hadn’t already believed the insight was that I was trained to see things from the point of view of the “people who need to be white.”
So I have allowed my sources of credibility to shift. Each book, poem, speech, video, demonstration, etc. implicates me, shows me I need to be humble, shows me that I need to listen.
I have come to believe, then, that the burden of proof is on people like the white clergy in MLK’s letter and no longer on the MLKs of our world (a rhetorical move even he makes at the end of the letter, when he moves to express his disappointment in the white church). The burden of proof is not on the activist, not on the BLM spokesperson, not on the kid who stares down a police officer as a form of nonviolent protest, not on the chanting crowd doing a die-in in the streets—but on the descendants of those who have for centuries refused to hear them truly, people like the white clergy in 1960s Birmingham—that is, it’s on people like me.
They may not look like MLK to us (or Gandhi or Mandela or Tutu or Thich Nhat Hanh, etc.), but one thing I find interesting is that those leaders could only ever “look like” MLK to us from our present vantage, from my point of view today. In his day, MLK was a menace, monitored by government, hated by power, a threat to the status quo, made to seem horrible, threatened constantly, and eventually murdered.
That is, even in his own day, even MLK didn’t “look like” the MLK we know today.
King cried out against an unjust system. Black Lives Matter does, too. And if the system itself is unjust, we can’t demand that they go through the system to prove its being unjust, though that’s what the white clergy had argued—“Don’t disrupt,” “Use legal means,” “What’s legal is just,” things like that—which is reasoning that loses its traction after a few paragraphs but for some reason has held on in the courts and in the media even until today.
If we use the same “What’s legal is just” logic—or, similarly, if we use the “Only those who were convicted were guilty” logic—logic many use today to show how police (because of non-indictments and legal exonerations) aren’t part of a brutal and unjust system—then we’d also have to agree that Black people were also never lynched, since no one was ever convicted of lynching.
But because we know they were, we also know that the system had something wrong with it. The BLM movement is responding to the same kind of thing, since lynching was once sanctioned by the state. In the same way, we know that unjust but “reasonable force” is also sanctioned by the state, among many other evils. So we have to appeal to something bigger than the system—that is, we have to appeal to justice—in order to bring about change, which is what the protesters are up to.
It’s a beautiful poem, really, what they’re up to, their protests, and we begin to see the beauty and elegance when we begin to listen to them like their stories matter as much as ours do.
To put this in Christian terms—they belong to a prophetic movement. But prophets are only recognizable as prophetic…in retrospect. Still, before history shows them to be prophetic in the past, prophets had to be trusted (or else exiled) in the present.
So the history of Black suffering is the history of white supremacy acting in God’s name, conquering the world, demonizing and brutalizing and marginalizing the Other. But the prophetic imagination that speaks truth to power is a vulnerable, awful, dangerous, beautiful thing, and the powerful are uncomfortable with it, as they always have been—especially for well-meaning, loving, introspective Christians like me who find it difficult to reconcile that outward brutal systemic power structure with the kindness in my heart.
(Which, if I’m honest, is a powerful function of white supremacy: to distinguish my inward life, my motivations, my private spirituality, from justice in the world. This distinction, which I have so longed abided in, has kept me quiet and prayerful where I should have been loud and disruptive.)
So to be non-Black, and to be (as) complicit (as I am) in white supremacy, is, in my view, to negate myself from having much to say about how the prophetic imagination ought to look—since it’s never the powerful and complicit who are the prophets, but the subjugated, the enslaved, the driven out, the outsiders.
To participate in justice, then—again, in Christian terms—I first have to admit that I’m more like Pharaoh than I am like Moses; it’s my job to listen to Moses, to trust him—not to critique his message. While I am uncomfortable, then, when I demonstrate in the streets (I have heard people say things I disagree with; I have marched alongside communists and anarchists; I have marched alongside Black Lives Matter activists being indicted for felonies; I do not agree with all of everyone’s goals, nor do I think I gain—among my friends and family—anything from their reputations), still, I think this is a prophetic movement. This message is, in the end, peace and justice—God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
And, as I look back at the prophetic voices of last century, I see the unified vision of Black freedom in everyone’s heart, which kept everyone singing together—and which brought MLK (Christian) and Malcolm X (Muslim) and Howard Zinn (communist) and Abraham Joshua Heschel (Jew) to lead followers along the same path, though they had disagreements between themselves.
I should not, then, critique the BLM movement as much as I ought to learn from it. And even if I did criticize the movement, the burden of proof is on me —is on power, on Pharaoh—not on Moses. The burden of proof does not belong to those—as it has in the past—who cry out, “I suffer!” but on those whose response has been, “Yes, but your real problem is…”
Additionally, I do not believe that “respectability politics” (the name for what those in the movement think white America is demanding of the Black activists) is the right means anymore (though it might have been at one time, especially in MLK’s day when the only chance for Black people to be heard would be if they were dressed up in ties and dresses, staying calm, saying please…), even though nonviolence, peace, and justice are always the goal.
Let’s remember, protests come in all shapes and sizes, including the destruction of property—and we ought to abide in the distinction between violence and the destruction of property, while looking compassionately at those who “explode” in places like Baltimore last spring. The passive bus boycott worked (for a little while) in the 1950s. But the Boston Tea Party is praised in American history, which included the destruction of property. And Jesus cleared the Temple, which also included the destruction of property. And the Underground Railroad was, after all, according to the laws then, outright theft, and yet we’re in favor of it. Sometimes people march in the streets; sometimes they strike; sometimes they chain themselves to trees; sometimes they dangle from bridges to stop ships from passing; sometimes the “occupy” Wall Street; sometimes they intentionally busy phone lines; sometimes they tweet or share videos on Facebook. Some of these protests qualify as what you called “sabotage”; others you may approve of and call “civil disobedience.” We like to pick and choose our protests: we like the students protesting in Tiananmen Square, but we condemn BLM protesters blocking the 405 freeway.
It’s not the respectability, then, of the protestor that I want to trust, but their ultimate message, their angles on peace and justice—and for my part I agree that BLM is out for authentic peace and justice.
(But this is where I try to make a distinction: I do not believe that peace is the absence of violence, but the presence of shalom—which is putting things to rights. Shalom is the word that makes brothers of justice and peace, so that “No justice, no peace!” is not a chant to make threats, but an ontological crying out, a call for shalom. I believe that today, when the government calls for “peace,” they really mean “silence.” And authorities appeal to MLK—i.e., “Martin Luther King would not have demonstrated like they did in Ferguson”—as a way to silence the prophetic disruption whose goal is true peace, true shalom.)
So I do not think that BLM should have to be “respectable,” since the burden of proof is not on them anymore. It has been too long—the data has long been available, the stories have long been told, the laws have too long been changed while systemic racism remains—for the burden of proof still to be on Black America. They are tired and angry and demanding equality. And they should get it, even if they have to raise their voices.
When I reread the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” I see that the most beautiful paragraph, the most heartbreaking, is the paragraph where King describes why it’s no longer time to wait, but time to act. I find this paragraph—its message, its emotional relevance—is still true today, only it’s been put on hold another fifty years. We are hearing the same responses from power today as we read in history books, and yet we are only able to recognize prophetic imagination in MLK in retrospect; we must have the courage to name prophetic imagination in our own day, and belong to the present Kingdom movement. Otherwise, being more like Pharaoh than Moses, we might face the plagues—or as Langston Hughes wrote, “What happens to a Dream deferred? // …does it explode?”
So, because of my complicity with white supremacy, I find I really have no say in what happens to the deferred Dream. I can repent of my complicity, but I can’t direct the movement toward justice: it isn’t mine to direct.
This is the reality, I think, in today’s America: Whiteness can make no demands on Blackness, and things have started to explode. And yet Whiteness continues trying to direct, to object, to critique, to characterize MLK as in a different category from Patrisse Cullors, which is to assume a position of power and privilege—to demand being Pharaoh—rather than to repent and make movements toward reconciliation.
Even so, Black Lives Matter is a movement of nonviolent direct action, much like King’s, though even members in the movement have warned against demanding “the next King,” since protest is something to engage in, learn from, and progress over generations. I have talked with and demonstrated with and partnered with some of BLM’s leaders, including Jasmine Richards, Shamell Bell, Melina Abdullah, and Patrisse Cullors (who appears in this video of a nonviolent, ongoing, creative protest). They are amazing, wise, driven, creative people who deserve our respect without their needing to be “respectable.” Instead, they’re creative disruptors responding to—and teaching so many others how to respond to—real injustices in a way that speaks truth to power, but nonviolently, through creative direct action.
I say this—I praise them—even while I do think it’s a stretch to demand that they be like our present perception of Mandela or King or Tutu as criteria to partner in their movement, especially since Mandela (and King and Tutu, et al.), in their day, were unpalatable-to-power prophetic voices (e.g., Mandela was once considered a terrorist in our country); that is, it would be very difficult to discern who the current MLK is, even if there were one, without first hearing them and trusting them.
At the same time, I think we ought to remind ourselves that prophetic voices have a long history of being so strange as to warrant (from the point of view of the powerful ) their assassinations, their being driven out, their being despised, their being on the margins. I’m reminded of Moses, Nathan, Elijah, Hosea, Amos, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul: speaking truth to power is never soft on power, and it comes at the cost of one’s reputation and often one’s life. Power hates the prophetic imagination and will do what it can to silence it.
And Richards, Bell, Abdullah, and Cullors (among many others), as far as I can tell, are doing it right—doing it with anger, sure (even our prophets were angry), but doing it in the name of love and justice. They are unbelievably, unapologetically, beautifully, bravely acting in and for the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. And it’s my honor to have joined them as much as I have so far.
I find it my first job, then, to grow in compassion. I have to “un-become” racist even while I have become an anti-racist activist. (And I have to become the kind of person who doesn’t need to do the computation of “If he was white the police wouldn’t have…”). These are my first moves, but they happen simultaneously with my activism. My actions cannot wait for my unconscious bias to catch up; I have to move forward.
So I find that I’m a teacher (to some) in this movement—a teacher for outsiders who might become allies—since I’m someone who is “outsider enough” to ally with BLM while also communicating to people who aren’t Black.
I was recently a part of a panel along these lines. We watched a PBS documentary called American Denial (which, by the way, I couldn’t recommend more highly—it’s so tremendously important and good, filled with great thinkers and writers like Michelle Alexander and john powell (also here); other thinkers and leaders, like Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, singing here a song that moves me deeply, are also worth listening to; Vincent Harding, John Lewis, Alicia Garza are all voices that belong to this chorus). We had a panel in which I confessed my complicity in white supremacy, my passive but harmful beliefs, and yet my commitment to name and overcome my biases.
Today, I try to show how power might partner with this prophetic movement. We have so many examples in history of those who failed to hear the greater message, who missed the forest for the trees, and I want to help people see the forest. Which is why my friend Justin Campbell and I cofounded The Just Love Coalition, and why we continue to find ways to be active in the name of racial equity, even though I’ve still got so much to learn.
In short, I think that if we offer Black Americans the kind of credibility, say, that a journalist would give to witnesses of a crime, their collective voices unfold a story far outside of our experience—and yet well within our responsibility—so that I am compelled to join what seems to me a continuing Civil Rights Movement.
Again, we may disagree. I understand that. And maybe after all these words here you still aren’t persuaded; maybe nothing has changed between us. But allow me to name what I see, even so: you are my friend, and a cop, and a Christian, someone I love and admire—and I am a new activist who has allied with the movement for Black lives. We are on different sides of the issue, something that has begun to touch both of our lives deeply. I appreciate that our disagreements may tempt us to part ways or grow resentment between us, but I also hope to remain united to my friend, my brother. Thank you for listening to me. I look forward to listening to you.