Monday, January 18, 2016

Being a "good" person, racism, and MLK

The long national nightmare of me taking a break from blogging for the holidays is finally over. Of the many highlights of my past month or so, few can compare to being part of one of the most amazing, well-organized, and downright heartening demonstrations I've ever been a part of. While the demo itself really deserves it's own post (seriously, we successfully shut down the Mall of America, the MSP airport, the LRT, and a major freeway with only a couple hundred people. The young folks who organized it deserve a damn medal), today on MLK day I'm more inclined to reflect on the response to the demonstrations.

Unsurprisingly, much of the reaction to the demonstrations, or at least the negative reactions, centered on the disruption of private property. "How dare these uppity demonstrators disrupt the mall's daily business?!?" they shouted repeatedly, never minding it was the mall's own (completely unnecessary) decision to close their stores. And as happens so often these days when anyone advocates for racial equality, these folks' complaints often used the civil rights movement of the 50 and 60s and the figure of (their completely and often intentionally misremembered) Dr. King to somehow shame and condemn the people carrying on their legacy. Which is ridiculous for so many reasons (after all, that civil rights movements would have never disrupted businesses or disturbed private property. No sir, no way).

While there's many causes to people feeling the need to invoke Dr. King to argue against something he would have obviously supported, I think one of the primary causes is white America's incredibly shallow understanding of what race and racism are and how they operate. They know that to be racist is to be bad. But they don't know what it is to be racist; only that it is bad, they themselves are not bad, and therefore they cannot be racist. As I teach my students, though, at the personal level racism is a verb. That is, it's not about who you are as a person, but about what you're doing. This is an important distinction because to live in America means to participate in racism at least some of the time, given its deep institutional roots here. It effects all people of all backgrounds. So even well-meaning people can (and undoubtedly will!) commit racists acts. This doesn't make them racists in toto; that's really more in how/whether you a)recognize what you are saying/doing is racist, and then b)stop doing that shit/educate other people about why that's racist/dismantle white supremacy/etc.

But again, most people who aren't sociologists don't think about racism in that manner, but instead think of it as people in hoods committing horrible violence. Which these good people don't do! Because they aren't racist! Case closed!

So you have this shallow understanding of what racism is and how it operates in combination with the incredibly watered-down version of Dr. King most people learn in school, in which Dr. King is not a man who advocated for the fall of capitalism, condemned the war in Vietnam, strenuously argued for labor rights, etc., but is a guy who once said "hey, let's all just get along and hug!" That version of Dr. King is an easy person to make into a civic saint, and in many ways, he has been.

And now you see the logic start to form for the people who somehow inexplicably say with a straight face that Dr. King would condemn the current civil rights movement and #blm specifically. And how they can further claim they believe in the aims of racial equality, but can't support the groups most actively working toward it. It works something like this:

Dr. King = good
Me = good
It would be bad to dislike Dr. King, because Dr. King is good. I am good, so I do good things (like liking Dr. King) and don't do bad things (like disliking Dr. King).
Therefore, I like Dr. King.

Me = good
Making good people uncomfortable = bad
It's bad to make good people feel uncomfortable. I am a good person (see Argument 1), so therefore it is bad to make me feel uncomfortable.

Making me uncomfortable = bad
#blm = makes me uncomfortable
It is bad to make me feel uncomfortable (see Argument 2), so anything that makes me uncomfortable must be bad. Since the Black Lives Matter movement makes me uncomfortable, it must be bad.

Being good = only approving of good things, not bad things
#blm = bad thing
Dr. King is good and therefore only approves of good things. The Black Lives Matter movement makes me uncomfortable and thus is bad (see Argument 3), so therefore Dr. King must disapprove of the Black Lives Matter movement.

I'm not completely certain that's how they get there, but it's the only way that makes sense. After all, what to make of the fact that almost everyone who criticizes #blm notes they support the previous civil rights movement? I mean, other than the fact it's this discussion's equivalent of "I have a Black friend?" Well, I'm pretty certain the answer to that paradox is the fact that they're alive now, because had they been alive during the previous civil rights movement, they probably would have disapproved of that one with most of the same arguments they're using against #blm right now. The only difference is that the previous movement has been officially declared a Good Thing that all Good People must like, while the current movement is not afforded such a narrative.

Because looking at sources from the time, people sure had pretty similar arguments against Dr. King and the previous civil rights movement:

A Gallup poll taken in 1959 found that, by 53-37 percent, Americans thought the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, a seminal case in the civil rights movement, “caused a lot more trouble than it was worth.”
"Most Americans told pollsters they still had doubts about the civil rights movement. In May 1961, most people (57 percent) told the Gallup poll that sit-ins at lunch counters and the 'Freedom Riders' would hurt African Americans' chances for integration. In 1964, Harris found 57 percent who disapproved of the 'Freedom Summer' effort by civil rights workers to organize black voters in Mississippi."

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