“There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.” As I read these words that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote decades ago from the Birmingham jail, I couldn’t help but think of their continued relevance today. Racism, racial inequality, and even institutionalized segregation continue to plague cities throughout America, especially my beloved city of Chicago and yet many times when these issues are brought to the surface, by brown, black, or even white organizers, we are told to stop being controversial or “playing the race card” or, most outrageously, that this country has moved beyond racism and, for some extreme few, even beyond any discussion of race. Well I think the time has come and “the cup of endurance” is surely and swiftly spilling over in neighborhoods were the hope of getting out of the cycle of poverty has yet to be seen or experienced.
When you read the headlines of another man of color being shot, killed, arrested, or imprisoned, unfortunately we tend to not even think twice about these instances because this devaluing of black men has become the tragic norm. The chilling and piercing words of MLK Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail remind me that this norm has a historical foundation that far extends my own lifetime. My question is, what will it take for this issue to change? Maybe Sharon Welch is right when she writes in her book After Empire that those of us that work for peace and justice are “content to denounce the structures we see causing harm,” but are unable to use “creativity” to imagine a tangible world that functioned any differently. The fact very well may be that even myself who is dating a black man, has a black nephew, and calls myself an activist for racial equality can’t even imagine a real, tangible world outside of the “tout autre,” or ideal, that would include structures that would fully foster racial reconciliation and equality. While I think that theory could very well be true, since it is easier to critique something while leaving no suggestions for future action, I do not know if that was is holding our country back from racial equality, which has improved only slightly from when King wrote his iconic letter.
What I see as one of the major setbacks in reaching a more racially just society is the apathy, indifference and even discomfort of a growing majority of Americans, even those working within the church and community organizations to have hard discussions of racism of the past and present. King calls the “white moderate… the greatest stumbling block” for the cause of racial justice at that time and I would echo King’s point for the present situation. In fact, it has gotten even worse in some ways because racism is often hidden within institutions and structures as opposed to the obvious segregation. Therefore, this increased subtly has allowed a growing indifference or even refusal to acknowledge the issue to fester within the American public. For at least those on the extreme ends of this dialogue of race are within the dialogue, but those that fall somewhere in the middle would many times prefer to end the conversation altogether because they prefer, like King states, “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” For, I believe, it will take living and working within such a tension for real change or advancement to begin happening.
Justice will begin once all parties are engaged in a conversation and understand the impact that such conversations have on themselves and fellow human beings. Just like Alice Walker spoke of in a short video clip of everyone needing to allow one’s identity to be molded by a story different than white privilege or middle class success, like indentured servitude or working class poverty, in order to even begin to understand the history and perspective of people of color in America. Do not get me wrong, having such conversations will take perseverance and determination. This open dialogue about race and struggle will force people to be honest about bias, privilege and prejudice, which can be extremely uncomfortable and vulnerable, but King preaches that such “injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.” For no human should be forced, like many black Americans both today and in the past, to accept despair and hopelessness as his or her lot in life. My prayer for this continued work for justice is that we all would begin to live uncomfortably within a healthy tension not necessarily for the end goal of destroying all racism (which would be the ideal, obviously) but to recognize more and more each day that we are united in our humanness or what Welch calls the “the ‘vibrantly imperfect’ possible.”