The United States may have a black man who happens to be President. But racial equality, justice and the radically democratic transformative possibilities that Obama symbolized seven years ago have not been translated into substantive improvements in the life chances for people of color more generally, or the black and brown poor in particular.
In response to the killing of Freddie Gray, Baltimore's ghetto youthocracy responded with protests and street violence, but the deeper and more substantive causes of Baltimore's violent spasm (and Ferguson and other sites as well) are long-simmering grievances and righteous anger at an American police establishment that is racist towards black Americans, and a society where its supposed "meritocracy" is broken by the colorline and class inequality.
There is a ritual that accompanies these moments of protest by black Americans, and the wholly predictable urban unrest that follows the repeated killings of unarmed black people by police.
The high priests of public opinion take to the TV, radio, and Internet and summon the memory of Brother Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to condemn black folks who are "rioting," for the latter are violating the sacred covenant of "non-violence" for which King, as one of America's greatest leaders and martyrs, supposedly died.
The man and woman on the street participate in this act of American civil religion as well. They mutter some basic understanding of Dr. King's dream, spittle accompanying a phrase about the Civil Rights Movement, as they shake their heads in consternation at the violent protests in Baltimore and elsewhere.
The high priests of public opinion on the dais, and those who sit in the pews of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement as civil religion, are engaged in futile acts of conjuring. They are trying to channel a weak and flattened memory of a man, one that has been reduced to selling fast food in January and February, made into an onerous statue at Washington's mall, and reduced to a paragraph that is ripped from a towering speech.
If the legacy of the real Dr. King—his radical politics, vision, and challenging words and deeds for an America sick with white supremacy, class inequality, war mongering, and hatred for the poor—was properly channeled, it would deafen the chattering classes. The real Dr. King is akin to the Old Ones or the Elder Gods. They and he are not to be summoned without care, for reasons disingenuous, or to help with a fool's errand.
The impotent summoning of Dr. King in a time of crisis (with its righteous, justifiable, protest and rage against police thuggery, and a cruel State that cares more about protecting property and its out of control racist police, than in justice for black and brown Americans and the poor) is enabled by a flat and weak understanding of the black freedom struggle and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s role in it.
The Civil Rights Movement contained multiple elements with often conflicting interests and strategies. Non-violence was not an empty phrase: it existed and found power in relation to those who wanted a more robust, direct, and if necessary, armed response to white supremacy and anti-black hatred. The Civil Rights Movement was able to use the media in the context of the Cold War, and white elites' anxieties about perception management abroad in an era of Jim and Jane Crow, to win its incremental gains.
Brother Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been canonized as an American saint. At the time of his assassination and martyrdom, King was one of America's most hated and despised public figures. In these times of troubles it is easy and intellectually lazy for people to mouth-breath some selection selectively misquoted and misappropriated from his "I Have a Dream" speech, as opposed to meditating on King's analysis of systemic power and inequality as embodied by his observation that "a riot is the language of the unheard."
King elaborated on the relationship of urban disorder to the struggle for full human rights and dignity for black American in "The Other America" speech, in which he stated:
I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.
Black Americans have a special relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He is "ours." As such, the black community has an obligation to ensure that his memory, legacy, and wisdom are not misappropriated. Unfortunately, the black chattering classes and elites are more often than not agents and enablers of a weakened vision of King's vision as political expediency and neoliberal governmentality pay great lucre to their agents.
Since before the Founding, white America has largely been on the wrong side of history regarding matters of race and justice. Because of this, white Americans should exercise great care when trying to summon Dr. Martin Luther King's memory as a means of subverting, lecturing to, or deflecting the justice claims (and anger) of black Americans. Both white conservatives and white liberals should abide by such a rule.
This is especially true for white conservatives in the age of Obama, a moment when conservatism and racism are fused together by the white right in the form of a Republican Party that is the United States' leading white supremacist organization. The Republican Party works to roll back the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, further criminalize the poor and has actively worked to undermine Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of a better America.
If our white brothers and sisters are not willing to do the necessary work to understand and grapple with the radical Dr. King, and his role as one of the "founding fathers" of the new America that was made after the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, then it is best they not reference him.
Perhaps, as white America tries to understand the anger, upset and pain of black Americans in an age of surveillance, police brutality, cruelty, class inequality, and mass incarceration, it would be an easier task from them to read some poetry by Yeats or Eliot. As black folks are killed on video by America's police and the latter usually go free because of the white racial paranoiac gaze, the specter of black death (and its inherent threat to black folks' full humanity) is captured by the inevitability and malaise of Eliot's "The Wasteland":
The barges wash
Down Greenwich reach
Past the Isle of Dogs
Yeats' "The Stolen Child" is also an appropriate theme for black life in an age of mass incarceration and police violence with its refrain "for the world is more full of weeping than you can understand."
Perhaps it would be best if most Americans simply took Dr. King out of their mouths, defaulting to different wisdom as offered by other people, for they are not really interested in understanding the true power of Brother Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s radical vision and truth-telling about white supremacy and class inequality in America.
Ultimately, "non-violence" robbed of meaning and context is just an empty incantation for America's civil religion of "racial equality."
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