Letter to the Editor: Shallow Understanding from People of Good Will
Recently, The Commentator published an opinions piece, titled “A Language Ignored for So Long Finally Heard,” in which its author, speaking about the fight for racial equality, writes “when it comes to this subject we should not and cannot allow ourselves to fall into the traps that come with the partisan politics of today’s day and age.” Although I am hesitant to pick out the words of a single student at our university for criticism, given that this is the only article The Commentator has published on the wave of anti-racist activism currently taking place in this country and the world over, I feel it is necessary to dispute several assertions made in this article.
Although it is convenient to say that partisan politics is irrelevant when making the call for “rational and sensible” change, I find it difficult to avoid the fact that white supremacy in America exists at a systemic level and any call for change — whether it be for specific police reforms, a more generalized defunding or even wholesale abolition of the police force — must be enacted through legislation driven by political will. It is readily apparent that many politicians are incapable of providing any meaningful change; one such example that quickly comes to my mind is President Donald Trump, who has publicly promoted police brutality and encouraged the use of lethal force in response to recent looting. Although I risk “falling into the trap of partisan politics,” I would argue that a necessary step towards a more just society would be to engage in political activism and vote with one’s conscience in November, if one is truly committed to an anti-racist agenda.
“A Language Ignored” concludes with the statement that “the groups of rioters — whose sole contribution to the protests is by bringing violence and property damage to various communities — ought to be denounced wholeheartedly for poisoning the sea of change with their selfishness.” It may be easy for those of us sitting in a position of privilege to condemn the violent riots we see on the news while still making calls for some nebulous notion of change and posting our black squares on Instagram in an empty gesture of solidarity that verges on self-parody, but it is possible that many of the conversations and actions currently taking place would not be happening without the sense of urgency created by forms of disobedience that are less than civil. At the same time, one should acknowledge that the aggressive actions of a militarized police force are an important contributing factor to recent escalations in violence and the increasingly blurry distinction between protest and riot. Regardless, in condemning violent reactions to a system of oppression, one propagates a narrative that downplays the gravity of the black community’s grievances and ignores the fact that far more is at stake than property destroyed. This is not an endorsement of violence; however, I encourage my fellow students to reflect upon their own commitments to nonviolence and recognize that these commitments are often suspended when the safety of one’s own body is compromised.
In conclusion, I turn to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Although he wrote this statement in a larger discussion about nonviolent forms of direct action, his words nonetheless address the problem inherent in the kinds of judgment made in “A Language Unheard” and challenges the prerogative of outside observers to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable forms of outrage:
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.
Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963.