We need an honest debate about race in America. We now also need an honest debate about the uses of violence in the quest for justice. The shocking aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd has precipitated a national conversation about the paramilitarization of our police forces, the sad repetition of urban policemen killing black suspects in what — oftentimes — feels like cold-blooded murder, the uses and abuses of protest, including destruction of property and the assault on law enforcement officers and innocent bystanders. These are very difficult and painful conversations. We all need to try to listen to each other with real, not pro forma, respect and to seek out as much middle ground as we can.
I know people who categorically condemn and denounce all destruction of private property in urban protests. In fact, I know people who condemn all Floyd-related protests outside of the city of Minneapolis, as if John Donne were just poeticizing when he said, “Every man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind” But I also know people who believe that the fires, the broken windows and the looting are a kind of barometric measure of the legitimate rage of African Americans and other minorities in the face of hundreds of years of lynching, rape, torture, enslavement, discrimination, voter suppression, police brutality, racial profiling and voter suppression. Abraham Lincoln made something of this “karmic” argument in his magnificent Second Inaugural Address, arguably the finest thing ever written in the United States. On March 4, 1865, Lincoln wrote:
“Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
If those words were spoken not by our greatest president but by an activist or a college professor today, they would be denounced as crazy talk, outrageous radicalism, “domestic terrorism.”
I am perplexed, torn, troubled and deeply disturbed by the violence now spreading across America, and, of course, I want to rush to the side of Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau, and Martin Luther King to insist on strictly nonviolent protest.
My particular polar star for human rebellion, Thomas Jefferson, died before Thoreau wrote “On Civil Disobedience” (1840), and he would have been both intrigued and astounded by Gandhi and Martin Luther King. But I think he would have argued that there are times when nonviolence is not a sufficient reply to the “long train” of violence meted out by those who maintain a monopoly of power and authority against the plain truth that “all men are created equal.”
“The tree of liberty,” Jefferson wrote, “must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” If you are an African American in the United States, you can aspire to equality and equal treatment under the law, but you certainly cannot count on it. It’s astonishing how complacent the white community is in the face of that self-evident truth. One hears the Tea Party types and the Freedom Caucus folks rage about liberty, but you almost never hear them speak out for the unfinished business of American racial justice.
I would like to make a modest suggestion: that the white community shut the heck up about Martin Luther King. It is such a facile dodge for secure, comfortable, wealthy and complacent white folks to embrace Dr. King now that he has been dead for 52 years, and to go on and on about his principles of nonviolence, while shrugging off America’s colossal violence in the world’s arena, the violence of some of our police forces and the deep structural violence (i.e., complacency) of our institutions of education, justice, and government welfare. Anyone who studies the life and times of Dr. King knows that he understood that there were times when property damage was inevitable and perhaps justified in the pursuit of racial justice; and that his steady adherence to nonviolent tactics was quite widely derided in the last several years of his life, when much of the black community determined that his brand of civil disobedience was not going to accomplish the goal.
I know some of the people who are using Google to excavate a couple of nonviolent quotations from the pen of a man whose life they have never bothered to investigate, and whose beautiful principles they cite for almost entirely self-serving purposes. We see them trot out quotations calling for nonviolent solutions, but I don’t see them cutting and pasting such MLK statements as:
- “When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative.”
- “The soft-minded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea.”
- “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
- “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”
I know plenty of soft-minded women and men. When I see these social media posts by people I know to be racists and bigots, people I know (because I was there) who denounced Dr. King in his lifetime, but have somehow found him worthy of their respect now that he is no longer a threat to their complacency and their bigotry, I want to expose them for what they are. I don’t, because I believe in civility and I’m frightened by the use of violence, and more than half-intolerant of looting. But I see them for who they really are.
I remember attending a cocktail party with my mother and 14-year-old daughter in another state in 2009, just a few months into the presidency of Barack Obama. Our hosts spent much of the evening spewing out vitriol against President Obama. They were appalled by his policies. They couldn’t stand his attitude, his style, his demeanor, his public speaking. In fact, they trotted out the right-wing nonsense about Obama’s dependency on the teleprompter — this about perhaps the most well-spoken president of my lifetime. They hated it that he “apologized for America.” They believed his health care proposals would destroy the economy and provide care to people who didn’t deserve it. They went on and on with their “lips,” as Dr. King put it, “dripping with the words of” of racial disgust, and something like open hatred. Even my still-innocent daughter saw through the subterfuge. She came away sickened.
I know people today who like to say that Obama was the worst president in American history. When I ask them for particulars, they have a hard time getting beyond a couple of half-forgotten talking points they gathered from Rush Limbaugh. I don’t speak as an irrational fan of President Obama; I found his “legislative” use of executive orders really troubling.
Most of the conservatives I know don’t know what the term “structural racism” means, but they are nevertheless quick to say it doesn’t exist. If I had a dollar for every time I have heard the words, “I’m not prejudice [sic]. I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” I’d be able to buy the complete works of Thoreau or all the biographies of Mahatma Gandhi. The folks who insist they have not a jot of racism in their souls should read Crystal Marie Fleming’s “How to Be Less Stupid About Race,” or Ibram Kendi’s “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” or Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism.” But they won’t. I know rich conservatives who have traveled the world and never seen a thing. They like to be photographed squatting with “pretty Vietnamese children,” embracing them with their first-world empathy.
I’m amazed by the capacity of white, privileged people to talk about the need to protect private property, as if that were the most sacred thing in America — much of that property, as for example, the White House, the U.S. Capitol and Mr. Jefferson’s University of Virginia, built by black slaves over whom the whip was brandished.
Black people built the White House and served as its janitors, cooks, maids and grounds crew. They emptied out the privies. They took out the trash. But it wasn’t until October 1901, 114 years into our national experiment, that Theodore Roosevelt became the first president to invite an African American to dine in “the people’s house.” Even then he was widely denounced by the same people (different generation) who advocate glacial change and support the status quo and wonder what African Americans have to be so upset about.
We must combat real violence. We must combat the violence embedded in our basic institutions. We must combat the violence of our complacency. We must acknowledge all the national prosperity that has been wrung, as Lincoln put in in his Second Inaugural Address, “from the sweat of another man’s brow.” How is it that the white people of America get to draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate protest, that white people get to set the rules of social engagement, that white people get to decide when they think the oppressed— which in North Dakota includes Native Americans—have “gone too far”?
Every white person who cares about justice and social harmony needs to speak out now to denounce what happened to George Floyd (and all the other Floyds in virtually every jurisdiction over the last decade), to demand a systematic revision of the police manuals of procedure across the nation, to insist upon ombudsmen in every town and city to monitor racial justice and to demand that the United States continue to march along the arc of justice towards an enlightened future.
We are all complicit. I know I am.
And finally, we white people need to shut the hell up and do some very respectful listening for a change.
For more from Clay Jenkinson, go to jeffersonhour.com.