“Most Americans Are Unconscious Racists”
WITH THE DISCUSSION OF RACE ON THE LAW.COM BLOG A REPOST.
WHAT HAPPENED TO RON MEXICO ANYWAY!?
By Michael Eric Dyson
When Martin Luther King, Jr., was in jail in Selma, Alabama, during a 1965 voting rights drive, Malcolm X flew in to address a mass meeting at the request of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC, which would soon elect Stokely Carmichael as its chairman, was more militant than its parent organization, the SCLC, headed by King. King had avoided meeting Malcolm in the past, since Malcolm relentlessly attacked King as an Unde Tom. In fact, their paths had crossed only a single time, when they ran into each other at the U.S. Capitol as the Senate debated the civil rights bill early in 1964. Almost a year later Malcolm was in Selma to shake the rafters and stir the troops to fight segregation. Malcolm was introduced to King’s wife, Coretta, who reports that she was “impressed by his obvious intefligence” and his gentle spirit. Mrs. King says that Malcolm indicated that he would not be able to visit King in jail since he had to catch a plane to New York in order to leave for London for a speaking engagement. Before he left, though, Malcolm made a startling revelation to Mrs. King that is still largely ignored. “‘I want Dr. King to know that I didn’t come to Selma to make his job difficult,”’ Mrs. King says Malcolm told her. “‘I really did come thinking that I could make it easier. If the white people reaLize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.”’
For most of their public careers, Martin and Malcolm brilliantly played off each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They sparred each other through the media and chided one another for following the wrong path to black freedom. King practiced nonviolence and preached to blacks that they should love whites as their brothers and sisters. Malcolm fearlessly encouraged blacks to be self-reliant, reject white allies in a struggle for freedom, and, if necessary, take up arms against violent whites. But as most Americans know, Malcolm had a dramatic change of heart. After journeying to Mecca and after his stormy 1964 break with the Nation of islam, Malcolm dedared that he no longer viewed whites as “devils” but as ordinary if flawed, human beings. Malcolm’s martyrdom in 1965 brought a tragic sense of loss of a towering figure who was just coming into his own, a man who had only begun to fulfill his potential as an internationally minded leader.
Martin Luther King, Jr., experienced an equally fateful change of thinking about racism in American society But unlike Malcolm, King lacked a dramatic event to parallel the Mecca conversion. If Malcolm was the prodigal son who strayed far from home before his partial return, then King was the son who never left but grew to question his inheritance. In some ways, King’s change was even more startling and consequential than Malcolm’s. Malcolm’s shift to a friendlier view of whites was widely seen as a belated nod to the wisdom of the civil rights movement. Chalk one up for King, the logic ran. But what is little appreciated is how, even if indirectly and in a less pronounced fashion, an element of Malcolm’s thinking got its hooks into King.
For the most part, King had been broadly trusting of whites. He believed that even the most vicious bigots would be won over by black suffering. But during the last three years of his life, King questioned his understanding of whites. Although he still believed in the possibility of transforming white society his tactics shifted as his beliefs about white racism changed. In the past, King believed in the essential goodness of whites. Later he doubted if whites could respond adequately to appeals to conscience. King started to insist on large-scale protests and a chastened view of the desire of whites to change their behavior fundamentally King’s mature thinking depended on the skepticism that Malcolm engendered: blacks could not get very far, or at least not as far as they needed to get, by playing to white morality King not only conceded the point, but went a step further: Most whites, he sadly conduded, were racists. Even when whites didn’t intend or want to be racists, they often gave in to racist beliefs and actions. King still loved whites, but more wisely and with greater insight about their limitations. For King, this recognition was not a source of bitterness but a prompt to revised strategy A belief that whites basically desire to do the right thing means taking one approach. But a belief that whites have to be made to behave in the right way means adopting an entirely different strategy For the last three years of his life, this was one of King’s mighty struggles.
King’s revised belief fly in the face of his sanguine image. His beliefs certainly don’t comfort liberals who deny, as King refused to do, the persistent, adaptive evil of white supremacy Liberals and leftists alike trap King in a view of race that he eventually discarded. As long as King waxed eloquent about how Southern segregation could be overcome with nonviolence, he was the darling of (Northern) white liberals. When he preached that blacks must sacrifice their blood and bodies to redeem whites, many liberals lauded his nobility When he insisted that blacks love whites, even hateful and violent racists, King was crowned an epic moral figure by many liberals. And when he risked his life time and again to make certain that “the brotherhood of man. [would] become a reality in this day” some liberals hailed him as a saint among mere mortals. The more King suffered and the more he encouraged black people to suffer, the more liberals praised King as a man who should be emulated by all blacks. (The distinction is crucial since many of these same liberals weren t about to implore whites to be beaten or killed for civil rights.) But when King began to say that racism was deeply rooted in our society and that only a structural change would remove it, he alienated key segments of the liberal establishment.
The left-liberal backlash against King was expressed in a biting passage written by cultural critic Christopher Lasch in 1991:
"In the early days of the civil rights movement, King had resisted the temptation to define black people simply as victims of white oppression. Instead he tried to encourage initiative, self-reliance, and responsibility He understood that people who thought of themselves as victims either remained helplessly passive or became vindictive and self-righteous. His later attempt to organize a national alliance of “disadvantaged” groups, however, forced him to rely on just this kind of morally flawed appeal.. . . By taking up the charge of “white racism,” he antagonized workingdass and lower-middle-dass whites without appeasing the black ......... Instead of appealing to the nation’s sense of justice, he now had to appeal to the mixture of pity and fear that came to be known, inappropriately (since it was activated less by conscience than by nerves), as “white liberal guilt.”
Despite the harsh criticism of disappointed white liberals, King refused to shut his eyes or his mouth. It was his duty he believed, to tell the truth about white supremacy in all its guises, including its softer, subtler surface as well as its hardened underbelly Undoubtedly it was shocking to hear King reject his optimism about the “great resources of goodwill in the Southern white man that we must somehow tap.” In the end, he branched beyond the South to criticize America’s moral and racial illness, even as he predicted that recovery would consist of much more than tapping a vein of goodwill. In King’s mature prognosis, nothing could heal the nation except radical moral surgery. This is crucial to remember today, when blacks and whites use the same water fountains but the color of a black man’s skin can still cause him to be dragged to his death by a carful of white teens or brutally sodomized by white officers of the law
What were the roots of King’s earliest faith in the moral capabilites of whites? He had begun his journey to black leadership in traditional fashion. After pursuing seminary and doctoral degrees up North, King returned South in 1954 to accept the pastorate of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, a small but prestigious congregation in Montgomery, Alabama. More than anything else, King wanted to improve black life in his native region. A little more than a year after going to Dexter, King won international acclaim for successfully leading the fight to desegregate public transportation in Montgomery through a widely heralded year-long bus boycott. King’s reputation was powered by his charisma and his oratorical brilliance. He was most famous, however, for advocating nonviolent passive resistance. In the face of white violence, King counseled blacks to return good for evil. He criss-crossed the nation in one campaign after another, urging blacks not to hate whites even as he helped to unravel the tightly woven fabric of Southern apartheid. King viewed nonviolence as both a way of life and a way of undoing unjust laws. It was also an effective means to challenge immoral social codes that made blacks second-class citizens. King’s grasp of how widely he could apply nonviolence~ was tested in the numerous racial conflicts he engaged. King’s hunger to find the best weapons of resistance was fed by his theology a simmering gumbo of neo-orthodoxy, the social gospel, evangelical piety liberalism, and, above all, radical black Christianity King’s social actions couldn’t help but be improvised since they grew from the dashing forces that shaped the movement. But the moral core of King’s activity lay in his vision of the “beloved community” where freedom and equality are ideally balanced.
King’s confidence in nonviolence was helped by his belief that whites really wanted to change. Beneath their masks of racial hatred and the unseemly scowls that whites flung at blacks, King insisted, was a deep desire to repent. In King’s mind, the depth of white bigotry was a sign of the great need for white forgiveness. The white soul slumped to repressed guilt for repressing blacks. Ironically, many whites often drowned their guilt by wading deeper in the fiery lake of hate. The sadistic habit of
attempting to escape shame by repeating the act that causes it is one that King, a fellow Southerner and Christian, completely understood. King’s claim that Southern whites really hungered for redemption was proof enough to his black critics that loving the hell out of bigots was a deluded, even destructive, strategy for social change. But to many whites, it revealed King’s uncanny insight into the white psyche. It cannot be denied that whites were grieved by King and grateful to him at the same time. Although they resented being seen through, Southern whites were nonetheless comforted by King’s emphasis on their humanity. In time, this led to a greater backlash because it suggested King’s and black people’s moral superiority an idea that was hard for whites to accept since blacks were supposed to be inferior. But King didn’t flaunt his ethical advantage in a game of racial one-upmanship. The point of the black freedom struggle, he argued, was not to embarrass whites but to embrace them along the road to equality (King believed that the Negro’s mission was to redeem America, a belief that surely presumed a special moral talent.)
Above all, King proved to be a master of the white psychology of race. He understood white racial anxiety and rescued whites by forcing them to face their spiritual contradictions. He encouraged whites to see themselves as participants in a cosmic struggle for right and wrong, even if they were often on the wrong side. The struggle to free blacks and redeem whites even gave white hatred a useful role. In King’s drama, violent racism was not simply a dreadful denial of the moral order but a way to bring it into existence. Since it was inevitable, racial terror was made into an unintended ally in the fight for racial progress. In King’s logic, obstacle was bent into opportunity King depended on the expression of racial violence to dramatize the Negro’s plight and to paint a searing portrait of American selfdestruction. For instance, in 1963 he ingeniously wrung a moral and legal benefit for blacks out of the racial chaos of Birmingham. Through his dramatic efforts to contrast black dignity and white brutality sharply King forced the nation to confront questions that it could no longer dismiss. Should America really seek to wash its hands of the whole racial mess by washing its black citizens off the concrete with firefighters’ water hoses? Should our nation attempt to bite into our racial maelstrom by training the incisors and bicuspids of police dogs into the flesh of black men and women? Is Birmingham police commissioner Bull Connor, the violent, implacable defender of Southern segregation, really the sort of figure that we want our children to see as the family retires from dinner to watch the evening news?
Even the denouement of bigotry was useful to King’s story of racial resistance. The possibility that prejudice could be partially resolved showed that blacks were willing to forgive whites and live peacefully King’s program of nonviolence was surely risky since it trusted whites and blacks to play their parts and then to treat each other as brothers and sisters. But King had a genius for making people believe that they had a moral gift they had forgotten, or never knew they possessed, and for making them proud to contribute to the common good. King, however, worked hard to deny whites the perverse pleasure of realizing that their bigotry was a spur to racial progress. He did this by suggesting that the moral values of American culture lie beyond race. Color-blindness so conceived was a crushing blow to the pigmented morality of white chauvinists. At the same time, King preached to blacks that their struggle was not between white and black but between right and wrong. By pegging black struggle to a universal moral foundation, King strongly affirmed black humanity, a fact that is today ignored by ahistorical advocates of color-blindness.
King’s love of Southern whites drew in part from their mutual love of a region whose ancient and competing loyalties have imbued it with a spiritual geography that transcends land. He saw their souls and knew their pains, even their fears, because he ripened in the same soil that fed their moral imagination. King nodded to Southern white identity while undercutting it, building into his nonviolent protest a fierce belief in white redeemability This notion ultimately won over whites but wearied blacks since the biggest burden was placed on their shoulders. Blacks had to love their hateful white neighbors. They had to “pray for those who spitefully use you.” Black blood had to spill to wash away the sin of segregation. Black life was vulnerable to white violence. And black pain led to white gain, too, since, as King was almost too fond of quoting, “unearned suffering is redemptive.”
King’s Southern roots showed in the dramatic drawls that dotted his public speech. King’s accent reminded the world of the negative hybridity of blacks in the minds of Southern segregationists: “They are from us but not ofus.” King’s accent permitted him to lay claim to an identity that had visibly and violently tried to purge itself of its black trace. Whenever King opened his mouth, he was renewing his and black people’s kinship with a tortured territory. Even as King necessarily harped on the South’s bad qualities to promote black liberation, he hitched himself and his cause to the South’s destiny by living, working, and, in the end, dying there. King seemed to understand how the South embodied social critic
Ernest Becker’s observation that while character may be a lie, it’s a vital lie. The South carefully shaped its character through byzantine social graces even as it teemed with suppressed longing and fear that were faintly disguised as courtesy and respect. For a long stretch of his crusade for justice, King seemed every bit the Southern gentleman. Above all, he understood how white nobility and honor worked: as a moral refuge for whites who felt betrayed by black freedom struggles and as a way for whites to save face as blacks challenged racist social habits.
It is not overstating the case to say that King was therapeutic for many Southern whites. He identified the psychic plagues that distorted Southern white culture. Many whites hated King for knowing them so well and for loving them just the same. Yet millions of Southern whites came to depend on a love they really didn’t deserve from a figure their culture taught them not to respect. Somehow, though, his strange talk of redemption through black suffering proved, finally, to be irresistible even when it was morally incomprehensible. King’s fight proved that although Southern blacks and whites in many ways lived in wildly different worlds, they had too much in common to make their quarrel easy or dean. They were joined by the Bible and the ham hock, by culture and cuisine. In fact, a mirror version of the Southern way of life operated in black life, even if it reflected a struggle against the inferiority imposed on it by white society Black self-hatred often stemmed from the fear that what whites believed about blacks might be true. Black guilt, on the other hand, had to do with the failure to demand dignity and respect. The self-loathing that resulted was a faithful barometer of the great need for black liberation. But many blacks, convinced they were inferior and undeserving of equality, shrank further into a .cocoon of self-hatred, denying their fitness to participate in the fight for freedom since they would be unworthy of its good results. They reinforced their chronic loss of self-worth by avoiding the struggle to achieve it. King understood both Southern white and black psychologies of race and worked to address the peculiar bruises of each community
When King turned his attention North, he faced a far more brutal and complex terrain. King discovered the difference in the two regions soon enough when he made up his mind to conquer Northern bigotry. But his view of American racism suffered the biggest defeat. After a string of stunning Southern victories—and some notable setbacks—King temporarily moved his family to a Chicago slum for a run at Yankee apartheid. There he ran into a more stubborn force of racial resistance than he had met in all his years in the South. In applying his technique of
nonviolent civil protest to Chicago, King uncovered the intransigence and intricacy of Northern racism. He was also shocked to discover the deep roots of black demoralization in the ghetto. Northern racism and black demoralization brought out the worst in King’s strategies, bitterly reversing the usual success of his campaigns in exposing to the world the worst in segregated communities. He was hit in the head with a rock as he led a march for open housing in Cicero, Chicago’s most notoriously racist community He was outwitted in the media, and in political strategy by Chicago’s shrewd, hardball-playing mayor, Richard J. Daley, whose ruthless political machine counted key black ministers and politicians among its loyalists. And Northern blacks cared far less about integrating white neighborhoods than about surviving the social brutalities of ghetto life. In his last three years, white racism and black poverty changed King’s mind about racism.
With the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on the books, King sought to expand the scope of the civil rights revolution into the hearts and minds of black and white Northerners. King discovered very quickly that he knew neither group nearly as well as he did their Southern counterparts. The North was a far different country It was an America whose rhythms and rituals were alien to King’s slow speech and his “corny~~ appeals to conscience. The huge morality plays that King brilliantly staged in the South were stocked with antagonists who were beset by buffoonery or belligerence. These traits helped to underscore the dignity of black victims, whose only crime was the desire to eat a hamburger or ride a bus seated next to whites, or to vote for a mayor like their white neighbors did. If evil found brash flesh in such figures down South, up North it preferred to remain diffuse and anonymous. King didn’t have a ioopy sheriff to outfox after he had beat up defenseless blacks. Neither could he heavily draw on symbols of culture that transcended color and were rooted in the desire to harmonize the races, even if, ironically enough, white segregationists sought to achieve such a goal through dividing blacks and whites. Thus, the races could get along if each knew its place: whites on top, blacks on bottom. This was rough equality in Southern whites’s minds, a view supported by their huge investment in the Jim Crow logic of “separate but equal.” As hard as it is to admit, hierarchy was at least a hopeful sign since it grew out of a yen by whites to preserve their fragile society and defend it against Yankee hypocrisy After all, what right did the North have to tell the South about racism when it couldn’t acknowledge its own racial problems? At least the South came clean about its dirt. It consciously, if imperfectly, sought a way to live with the mess. The North, on the other hand, daimed that it was already dean, and thus largely sidestepped the always difficult task of fixing what doesn’t appear to be broken.
King’s open housing marches in Chicago were greeted with what he said was the most “hostile and hateful” demonstration of white racism he had ever witnessed, more violent than even Selma or Birmingham. King acknowledged that “we had not evaluated the depth of resistance in the white community” and he accused Northern whites of practicing “psychological and spiritual genocide,” a stunning about-face on his earlier beliefs in the inherent goodness of whites. Not only in Chicago but in other Northern cities, like Cleveland, King faced a bewildering racial hostility. It gave him a greater appreciation for the rage of Northern blacks who doubted civil tights strategies because they didn’t free blacks from economic misery. But King continued to blast away digging himself deeper into psychological debt to a profoundly skeptical, even pessimistic, view of American race. He openly admitted that “I’m tired of marching for something that should have been mine at birth” and thundered that “if these agreements aren’t carried out, Chicago hasn’t seen a demonstration.” Throughout the nation, King preached his new gospel of coming racial apocalypse if white supremacy was not destroyed. King confessed that he was “tired of race” and, anticipating the Kerner Commission, daimed that white racism was the “destructive cutting edge” that would split America into “two hostile societies.”