Still Dreaming

Black girl holding 3 Pebble dolls of different skin tonesThe words floated down the hall from a classroom full of beautiful little people. I paused my work as their intonations rose and fell like the gentle but ever-moving waves on a lake. Something inside me tilted a bit when I heard this, and hope weighed a little more.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28, 1963

The “Dream” speech is more than 56 years old. His children have long grown up and I wonder if they have noticed enough lasting change to feel that the sacrifices their father made have been worth it. It’s easy for us as white people to think that we have come so far and that the burden of the social justice struggle has been borne and the hard part is over. Yet, that is not our decision. In fact, if we feel we have arrived, it is because our privilege has made us comfortable. Let’s take a look at how races are treated within communities. White people are four times as likely to say that we are all treated the same while only 18% of blacks would agree with us.  Another study shows that 75% of black people feel there has been little to no civil rights progress in the last 50 years. Police brutality, school segregation, unequal pay and so much more continues to haunt the fabric of our society. Black kids today are even more likely to grow up in a poor neighborhood than at the time of the Dream Speech, while white family wealth is nearly 7 times higher than black family wealth. Inequality is everywhere.

This is not to say that we should not celebrate the civil rights victories from the past 5 decades. Rather, it is a reminder that we are nowhere near the finish line. Celebrating the life and memory of this great Civil Rights Leader is not a time to pat ourselves on the back and sit down. It is a time for us to make sure we are still on our feet, ready to be the change our country needs.

“The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?” ~ MLK, Letter from Birmingham jail

Today is about a birthday, not a retirement party.  So get your walking shoes on and lets go!

The White Moderate

Like a laboring woman who rests momentarily between contractions, the heavy sky pauses briefly outside my window. It rests from pushing out a howling wind and gasping raindrops, taking in deep breaths of cold, cold air to turn these drops into fluffy flakes. Soon, they predict, ice and snow will fall on this city and white will cover up the gray and the mud.

Isn’t that what we want – a fresh clean layer of something sparkly to cover up the muck of a thawed out January? Anything to help us forget the long hours of darkness and the ick underneath. The kids are happy to have yet another snow day, fingers curled around the remote, reports and books forgotten while parents everywhere hurry through the grocery aisles, stocking up for who knows how long, hoping to get home safely before it hits. Yet, for now, it’s still muck and mud.

Funny how much faith we put in the weather report, how quickly entire schedules are swept aside so we can be safe, yet pay precious little attention to certain other voices that have been telling us about their own un-safety for a long, long time now. If we aren’t stuck in the muck ourselves, why is it so hard to hear those who tell us they are?

This morning I came across some of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s quotes that the media won’t cite. They were fascinating. The quote that struck me the most concerned King’s disappointment with the White Moderate. He says,

“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.”

He wrote these words in a Letter from a Birmingham Jail to the clergymen of Birmingham. It is a long, letter but well worth the read and I find myself a little more in awe of this man who was willing to sit in a jail cell to prove a point.

While some things have changed in this country since then, there’s still a deep layer of muck and mud that some of us choose not to see because we still love order (for ourselves) more than justice (for all people) and the absence of tension (in our own lives) to the presence of justice (for all people). I’ve spend my share of time in White Moderate communities where we are taught to love all people but not make waves. How can this even be a thing? Moderation is held high and radicalism frowned upon. And “tension”, forget about it. In these places I’ve called home, it has always been better to sweep things under the rug than to disagree or expose a conflict. I’m speaking about entire communities committed to keeping a calm, perfect face, of striving to maintain “peace” (AKA lack of tension), looking good at all costs.

Edmond Burke said “All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing.”

My point is that there are a whole lot of us that feel okay about ourselves because we aren’t out there committing acts of violence. We are nice to those we meet. We do not cheat our customers or hurl racial slurs. We don’t go anywhere that would be too uncomfortable but we still do our share of kind things for others. We hear whispers of injustice but we aren’t creating the injustice so we feel okay remaining where we are at. But, being good and moderate and remaining quiet is the very thing that lets injustice continue. If we are okay allowing injustice to continue, how are we different from those who perpetrate acts of injustice?

Outside the wind is again picking up speed, throwing bits of snow and ice at anyone who dares venture out. In my warm, safe home, I ponder and pray.

May I have courage to always speak up when I see injustice.

May I have the humility to listen to the voices telling me stories so different from my own reality. May I sit in the discomfort and truly learn to listen and to weep with those who weep rather than shushing them.

May I become a radical who dares make waves because I love so deeply, across racial, gender and socioeconomic lines. May I be stubborn enough to reject labels and boxes, to see each person as reflective of the Divine.

May I be wise enough to inspire my sons and all of this next generation to be radicals who will never look at injustice and say, “It’s not my problem”. Who will uncurl their fingers readily from the remote and wrap their arms around the broken instead.

May I be bold enough to yank the rug out from under feet, to expose the lies that lay beneath. The world does not need my silence any more. My “doing nothing” only creates more souls who feel like nothing.

May I love deeply enough to stop spending my time and my money, but to change the currency and spend myself.

And may I never, ever, ever, stand in the way of justice or be a stumbling block in someone’s journey to freedom. Let me, instead, be the one clearing the road so they can run to freedom.