“I have reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block toward freedom is not the white citizen’s councilor or the Klu Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than 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 with the goals that you seek, but can’t agree with your methods of direct action.”
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.,
“Letter From Birmingham Jail,” 1963
I have reached a regrettable conclusion in the era of President Trump: I no longer have hope in white America.
After White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was politely asked to leave a restaurant in Virginia, discussion among the largely white political and media classes erupted into a firestorm over “civility” in the Trump era. Those of us whose identities have made us the direct targets of the Trump administration’s hateful rhetoric and discriminatory policies are told to not stoop to Trump’s level. We are then fed cherry-picked quotes from black luminaries, often the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars” — or a favorite from Michelle Obama’s convention speech: “When they go low, we go high.”
The whitewashed version of a heroic, nonconfrontational King ignores the fact that he favored direct action and confrontation, and was painted as an extremist in his time. White Americans hated and jailed him. And ultimately, it was a white American who murdered him in broad daylight.
As for going high? Trump rose to power in no small part because of his promises to bury the political accomplishments of the first black president. It is easy for those who have privilege — the privilege of never being denied the opportunity to serve in the military because of their gender identity, of never being afraid of police brutality, of never facing anti-Muslim animus, of never being a migrant forcibly separated from his or her children — to lecture us who do not enjoy such privileges to conduct peaceful resistance in a way that doesn’t make others uncomfortable. But these demands for civility from the privileged, largely white political class who claim a desire to oppose Trumpism and injustice sound very much like the stumbling block of white moderates that King wrote about 55 years ago.
Those of us who knew we were under threat from Trump have, since Election Day 2016, been told that America’s institutions will protect us from Trumpism. Congress would be a check. The responsibility of the office of the presidency would humble him. None of this has happened. Last week, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision decided to ignore the president’s Islamophobic rhetoric and upheld his ban on travelers from certain majority-Muslim countries, legally sanctioning Trump’s anti-Muslim animus into official policy. Now that Justice Anthony Kennedy has announced his retirement, Trump can shape the court even more in his own image for decades to come.
All of this leads to the question of hope. For those who have been fighting for civil rights for people of all creeds, colors, genders and nationalities, it is a very dark time. What do we do?
In her book “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness,” writer Austin Channing Brown says she has “learned not to fear the death of hope. In order for me to stay in this work, hope must die.” She writes: “I cannot hope in whiteness, I cannot hope in white institutions or white America, I cannot hope in lawmakers or politicians. I cannot hope in misquoted wisdom from MLK, superficial ethnic heritage celebrations or love that is aloof. I cannot even hope in myself. I am no one’s savior.” Instead, she has decided to embrace the shadow of hope, opting to continue “working in the dark not knowing if anything I do will ever make a difference.”
After the past few days, I have decided to embrace the shadow of hope as well. This doesn’t mean I’m not encouraged by positive developments. It is good that federal judges are challenging Trump’s family separation policy. It is good that those of us from minority groups are organizing across intersectional lines. We should be heartened by the New York primary win of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old community organizer from the Bronx who beat establishment-Democratic powerhouse Rep. Joseph Crowley. Her win is a reminder that in the face of Trumpism, and of establishment parties that are slow to respond to the needs of the marginalized, we will make our presence known.
But we will continue to struggle, to write, to resist, to confront, to march and to dissent, even if it is done in the darkness. The struggles of our forebears demand nothing less.
Karen Attiah is The Washington Post’s Global Opinions editor. She writes on international affairs and social issues.
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