Saturday, May 31, 2014

Dear middle-class liberals who cite King's letter from a Birmingham jail

This is inspired by Andy Duncan's Facebook post, Many friends, colleagues, and acquaintances in the..., but I'm writing here because King is often misused by middle-class anti-racists.

ETA: A day later, the discussion at Facebook is still going on.

Liberal anti-racists like to cite Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It's a great letter, especially for its criticism of white moderates and middle-class blacks, but they miss many of its implications. King was criticizing people who were sympathetic to ending racism, but who offered no solutions other than talk and patience. King always had solutions. In 1963, when he wrote that letter, he supported legal changes to address racism. By '67, his vision had grown. In his last book, he wrote,
In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.
His solution:
I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.
In the Birmingham letter, King mentions "middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security ... have become insensitive to the problems of the masses". That describes too many black anti-racists who happily talk about social privilege and fail to offer any ways to help the 11 million black Americans in poverty, let alone the 20 million non-Hispanic whites or the remaining 16 million who mostly identify as Hispanic white.

Ask self-styled anti-racists for practical solutions, and they'll only tell you they want to debate the problem. They prefer the King of '63 to the King of '67 because the King of '63 does not challenge the privilege they do not want to lose, their class privilege.

I'm especially surprised when young anti-racists quote King and Malcolm X to activists of my generation. That's like telling World War II veterans about Franklin D. Roosevelt. I'm among the hundreds of thousands who marched for civil rights in the '60s and was beaten by racists, and my story is not significantly different than that of many older science fiction writers, I suspect. Harlan Ellison, who has been mocked by fandom's anti-racists, was part of King's 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. He talks about it here:

Perhaps the most important thing to remember when anti-racists quote King or Malcolm X is that they're not his followers. Their ideology comes from Derrick Bell, the father of Critical Race Theory, whose understanding of power never went further than skin-deep.

PS. Since I mentioned Malcolm and Ellison does, too, here's one of my favorite quotes that anti-racists ignore: "I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those that do the oppressing. I believe there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice, and equality for everyone, and those who want to continue the system of exploitation. I believe there will be that kind of clash, but I don't think that it will be based on the color of the skin." —Malcolm X / El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz