Fifty two years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. accepted his Nobel Peace Prize Award on behalf of 22 million African-Americans in the civil rights movement “engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice.” This is an important reminder at a moment when there is a profound sense of powerlessness, skepticism, betrayal and widespread despair about having no constructive mechanism to express outrage. Some feel forsaken by a system that pledges its commitment to those who abide by its tenets. Peaceful protests seem largely ignored, and soon after a crisis subsides, day-to-day activities resume with a brisk business-as-usual complacency that protesting activists have come to abhor. People are not turning toward each other and seeking to bridge the divides that separate us. Instead, more than ever, they seem to be turning against each other. These days are surely among the ones James Weldon Johnson had in mind when he lamented about “days when hope, unborn, had died.”
There are many huge divides that torture the fabric of our souls as a nation, (e.g., religious bigotry, gender hatred, class divides, and the list goes on). However, racial injustice seems to dominate recent controversies. As a nation, we seem not to have permanently conquered the “emperor of all maladies” that the societal cancer of racial injustice has become. Slavery, America’s abominable birth defect, morphed into segregation, and sundry forms of Jim Crow restrictive laws and racial oppression. Periodic remission only superficially masks the true malignancy that is racism at its core. Where we thought President Obama’s two-term election as the nation’s first African American president might have ushered in a post-racial America, it’s more likely that his election triggered a latent racist response among those in our society who have not truly accepted racial equality, and for whom his election is a source of great anger and resentment. This includes some members of some police departments.
Despite current circumstances, despair and hopelessness must not overtake us. We have to learn to listen to each other, to be able to put ourselves in the shoes of others, and to move from not just tolerance – but also compassion – for others. This seems to be the necessary first step from which all other justice inspired steps may or may not follow. The essential question then is to what extent is the segment of the population embedded in prejudice, fear and resentment of the “other” able to do this? In order to bring about lasting change to create a truly post-racial society, we must remember the following points:
- Society, Politics, and Culture Cannot Be Explained By Mere Sound-Bites
We must not expect immediate results in our quest for change. As the title of this article suggests, to be lasting, the process of social change must evolve. We live in a culture that is very reductionist. We get blinded by the seduction of sound bites, unresearched, often author-less blogs, emails, news and articles. They may support our views or even supply us with “popular views” about something that we don’t want to take the time to study or even think about. We get whipped up and swept away with the raw emotion, usually negative, so easily. Neil Douglas and Terry Wykowski, my collaborators on this article, are co-authors of the book Beyond Reductionism. In the book, Douglas and Wykowski argue that “reductionism…is a constraint on achievement, social progress, justice, equity, general well-being and meaningful existence in the surrounding culture”. The problems are complex; the solutions must not oversimplify things.
- Critical Thinking Is Needed Now More Than Ever for Our Big Divides
An antidote for reductionist thinking is critical thinking. One of the courses I teach at Hunter College is called “The Anthropology of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.” We have class debates based on well-chosen debatable moments during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Looking at the recent past through the eyes of the present, students learn to distinguish belief from knowledge and reflect upon the serious consequences of confusing the two. They learn to plan for a future in which they may be called upon to provide leadership. Students search for arguments both for and against each debatable moment. They learn to cultivate the insight, the discipline, and the skills to focus their erstwhile outrage while strategizing for lasting change. It is a way of looking at issues and events in a thoughtful, scholarly manner that is both holistic and critical, and augments the intellectual portfolios of these future activists.
- Nonviolence Remains the Perennial Best Course of Action To Bring About Social Change
Even during his lifetime, the persuasiveness of Martin Luther King Jr’s strong advocacy of equality and justice was met with skepticism and dissent. Yet, his eloquent insights are as prescient today as ever. He stated that we must “evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation.” King continues:
Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need … to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
The success of the Civil Rights Movement based on the moral principle of non-violence is antithetical to the retaliatory violence against police that happened in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Such violence is fully in opposition to Michelle Obama’s message in her speech at the National Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, “when they go low, we have to go high”. It is also counter-productive in bringing about change.
As tumultuous as these times seem, we have the promise of a grand evolution, one befitting the dignity of humankind. Can we claim this vision, or will we continue on the pathway of darkness King warned us about? Will we fight darkness with darkness, or will we bring light into our existence as individuals regardless of race, creed, color or economic status both as individuals and as a worldwide community? We may indeed be living in challenging times, but given our legacy of fighting for change – and how far we’ve already come – we can create a society that lives up to our national values.
This post appears as part of a Roosevelt House series on race and law enforcement. To read the rest of the series, click here.
N.B. David Julian Hodges, Ph.D., is professor of anthropology at Hunter College and a faculty associate at Roosevelt House. He is the editor of Introducing Cultural Anthropology: Essential Readings and The Anthropology of Education: Classic Readings. Collaborating with him on this article is his former Hunter College student, Terry Wykowski, and Neil Douglas. Douglas and Wykowski are co-principals of the Oxford Consulting Group in Houston, Texas and authors of Beyond Reductionism: Gateways for Learning and Change; From Belief to Knowledge: Achieving and Sustaining an Adaptive Culture; and Rethinking Management: Confronting the Roots and Consequences Current Theory and Practice (publication forthcoming by Palgrave Macmillan).