Every year, I read King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and sometimes I share my reflections. This year, I added listening and reading “I Have A Dream”1 to the mix as well, since hearing him speak is more powerful than deeply reading his words.
Before I started my annual reading, though, I was thinking about a conversation with my mom the other day and the story she told me about an elderly black woman saying that she still wasn’t free. The woman’s tone and dismissiveness about it alienated the people she was talking to, almost including my mom, who has known her for 30 years and gone to church with her; this woman also knows of my mother’s challenges in raising mixed-race boys in the South.
Wow, we live in different worlds!, I thought. As I reflected on it more, I found more depth to the thought than I had originally wanted to admit.
This elderly black woman lived in Arkansas through the marches. Arkansas, where the signs reminding black people not to be seen in towns after dark had been removed shortly before my birth — but the threat of the sign had remained in the minds and hearts of all people, black and white.
She had lived through a time in which black and white people could not legally be married, as those laws were overturned in 1967 in Loving v. Virginia. She had lived through a time wherein the mechanics of sharecropping had extended fully into urban scenarios.
So had my parents and the teachers I was lucky enough to be influenced by. For instance, my dad was 23 when King rallied in Washington in 1963.
They’ve had decades of bad checks on the promissory notes of freedom that were written when our Founding Fathers wrote in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. As I mentioned in last year’s reflection, these decades of bad checks have created a situation in which we find a gap in elder leadership from minority communities — they’ve been forced to drink from the cup of bitterness and hatred for so long that it taints any freedoms fresh from the fruit of their labors.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to truly walk in their shoes because I grew up in the world that they and the civil rights movement created. Before I’m misunderstood as saying we are in some promised land where we’ve abolished injustice, I want to discuss the different levels of injustice.
In a pure democracy, we have to analyze injustice along six levels:
- Social — the culturally ingrained beliefs and (often unconscious) folkways that establish ways of treating each other.
- Legal — the codified, enforceable rules that justify ways of treating each other.
- Economic — the arrangements and practices that establish how we treat each other in the marketplace (including at work).
- Institutional — the ways in which certain institutions — say, police forces, the military, academia, and organized religion — apply special rules and behavior that aren’t representative of the society at large, are somehow separate from the general legal rules, and aren’t directly economic.
- Faction — the ways in which small groups, communities, and clubs establish and reinforce ways of treating people.
- Individual — the ways in which individuals treat other individuals.
In a simple model, injustice flows from the top, in that the ingrained beliefs and folkways of people create the conditions by which we’ll agree to laws — directly and indirectly through the people we elect into office — that then support or create certain economic arrangements.2 If the social belief is that a certain class of people are somehow less-than, it’s easier to legally own them as property, forcibly remove them from their homelands, or place them in internment camps. We are ashamed for our forebears as much for what they believed as for what they did.
As you go down the levels, the grip of the injustice weakens. While you as an individual can treat me poorly, I can either go somewhere else or seek relief from higher elements of society. If you steal my car, for instance, I can call the police because of the legal layer.
The older generation lived in a world where there was severe social injustice, which flowed all the way down. They were simply written big checks that bounced, whereas the checks that have bounced for me are fewer and further down the list.
Consider that Angela and I never had to question that we could legally get married. I was granted leadership and scholarly opportunities due to diversity initiatives rather than being denied them because of the color of my skin.
As always, this holiday isn’t just about race for me. Last year, same-sex marriage become legal in all 50 US States. I’ve attended two same-sex weddings and may be officiating another in the next year. I’m happy to say that my previous reflection, Letter from Lincoln, is no longer relevant as a legal argument, though the social commentary remains.
And yet the odds of my falling prey to institutional injustice in the hands of police officers and our legal system are still much higher than a white person’s. My sisters’ chances of having to prove the status of their relationship to see each other in the hospital is still much higher. A white person who opens fire on a college campus is labeled a school shooter; if that same person were of Arab descent or Muslim belief, they’d be labeled a terrorist.
As I mentioned in last year’s reflection, King’s message is largely about personal responsibility. His calls to the silent majority — which I fear will now mean something different due to the dynamic of the Trump campaign — are bell tolls at the social level for individuals to mobilize at the individual, factional, and institutional levels, rather than hiding behind the comforting curtain of the law, for there are just laws and unjust laws. His calls to people to “not be guilty of wrongful deeds” was a reminder for his listeners then to not fall sway to factional injustice that led to terrorism and is equally a reminder for us today to not follow along with reinforced injustice that we may find at the factional and institutional levels.
I’ll take it a step further: you are a force for freedom wherever you go. Our task today is both easier and harder for different reasons. It is easier because we will not have dogs and firehoses turned on us when we fight for what we believe in. It is harder because we have to stand up to the dogs and firehoses inside ourselves that we unleash on others. We cannot simply rally in the thousands against systemic injustice — we instead must rally for change, in our homes, our churches, and our workplaces, not merely resting upon the distance we have come, but focusing rather on the distance we have yet to go.
Our task is to acknowledge the unfree elderly woman’s world while showing our children the world they inherit and continually pointing to what it could be. Our task is to make interacting with people from other walks of life to be the natural way of life rather than something we have to make resolutions and initiatives to do. Our task is to make the world so that explaining police brutality is like explaining corded phones and record players to kids. Our task is to create a world that can cash its checks on justice and opportunity. Our task is to not put our own bitterness and hatred in the cups of freedom that we are giving to others.
Our task is to find the little steps we can take every day toward creating a better world for everybody. A march of tiny steps is still a march nonetheless, and we shall always march ahead.
1. The speech is copyrighted, but Audible has a great collection of his recorded speeches called Call to Conscience — “I Have A Dream” is Chapter 6 — that you may be able to get for free if you’re a new member.↩
2. Oligarchies, monarchies, theocracies, and tyrannies are arranged differently, largely because the institutional and faction levels bump to the top. The American Revolution was ideologically about displacing institutions (the monarchy and theocracy) from the top of the rung.↩
Jane Steen says
Our task is also to help our children. I grew up in a home and environment where casual racism was the norm, and I acknowledge the racist scripts that play in my own head as a result of that upbringing. I have been preventing them coming out of my mouth all my adult life.
I watched my kids pick up racist attitudes at their predominantly white school, but I’m proud to say that in this case at least, their home environment prevailed and as adults they treat people as individuals rather than as ethnicities. It’s a tiny change for the better, but I know I helped it happen because I resisted my own conditioning.