Today is the Inauguration. Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. As a scholar of race and equity, I have complicated feelings about both, particularly around how people choose to recognize them. The mixture of capitalism and nationalism and calls to action feel out of touch with the lived experiences of so many people in the United States, but yet we continue to acknowledge these days for what they represent (or maybe, what we want them to represent).
Every MLK Day, I re-read Letter from Birmingham Jail. This is my favorite of his writings because it so closely aligns with my own views on justice-oriented work and the white moderate and how systemic inaction leads to inequity. He argues throughout the letter something I find fundamental to my own work: nothing changes without action. I would also add the caveat that nothing changes without substantial action. Fighting for racial justice is always easier when one isn’t personally at risk–but really it requires a critical mass of us committing to take whatever risk exists in this fight. King wrote:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor 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 can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until 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.
These words force me to think about all the coded language folks use in academia to police and dismiss the type of direct action necessary to improve the educational outcomes of underrepresented folks. They force me to think about risks I have and will take, even when there are white voices telling me to “work within the system” and “be patient.”
We have new president and with that, a new sense of hope. Or so folks tell me– I spent much of the day thinking about the hypocrisy of the great American experiment and that this new change won’t be the panacea folks want it to be. King wrote about this too, reminding us that we can never relent:
“Why didn’t you give the new administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this inquiry is that the new administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one before it acts.
But then as I was stewing about American exceptionalism and white liberalism, I read a comment on a news post that read, “It’s ok to be happy today. Even for the whole day.” And that made me laugh. Let tomorrow bring the hard work of confronting negative peace and lukewarm acceptance. Today we can allow ourselves some peace.