Bending the Arc Toward Justice by Owning Up to Our Racism

Recently I’ve found myself getting into some infuriating debates on social media (mostly with fellow white folks) about racism, law enforcement, the current state of our country, and, specifically, the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

I’m usually pretty good at not engaging with people and in discussions that don’t seem respectful or productive. I’m all up for healthy debate, for being challenged, and for trying to influence people. I’m also passionate about finding common ground and working to see things from different perspectives. These are some of the main reasons I wrote my most recent book, We’re All in This Together, and wanted it come out in 2020, in the midst of this incredibly divisive time.

Last night someone I don’t know came at me aggressively on Instagram and instead of just ignoring it, I went down the rabbit hole for a while and got really triggered and angry. Thankfully, my wife Michelle talked me down and helped me disengage.

As I tried to calm down and got into bed, I cracked open our friend Glennon Doyle’s book, Untamed, and happened to open it right to a chapter called “racists.” As I read, I began to breath more deeply. She beautifully articulated a few things in this chapter that really resonated with me.

Close to 90 percent of white people approve of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today, while only about 30 percent of white people approved of him during the civil rights movement (which is about the same percentage of white people who approved of Colin Kaepernick when he first took a knee in protest back in 2016).

Glennon quoted a piece of Dr. King’s famous 1963 essay, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in which he wrote this:

“I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. 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’.”

Wow…these words hit me like a ton of bricks for a few reasons. First of all, what Dr. King was writing about back in 1963 from that Birmingham jail is what I am seeing and hearing a lot of these days. Some of the people I’ve been arguing with have even used Dr. King as an example essentially saying “he did it the right way,” but then accusing those who are protesting today for doing it the “wrong way.” This makes me crazy…I find it incredibly disrespectful and disingenuous.

But, second of all, the deeper truth I had to grapple with as I read these powerful words is my own moderation, my own racism, and the subtle ways in which I actually do the things that Dr. King is calling out in this essay, which perpetuate racial inequality and white supremacy.

Like the smoke in the air in California right now, we’ve all been breathing in the toxicity of racism here in America our whole lives — it’s in us whether we want to own it or not.

I think a big part of what’s happening right now in our country is that many people are waking up a bit more to this toxicity and seeing the devastating and deadly impact it has had and is still having on black and brown people, and on our entire society.

Those of us who simply get to learn about systemic racism (and not experience it directly) are incredibly privileged. And, we have the opportunity to use this privilege to actually make our country fairer, more just, and more humane.

To do this we’re going to have to continue to grapple with not only how the racism of our country impacts us personally, but how we internalize it and even perpetuate it, both consciously and unconsciously. And, in doing this, we can continue to both learn and unlearn, and we can also actively participate in the changes that are necessary. While this is not easy or comfortable, it is essential.

As we get closer to the election here in the US, I have a feeling that things are going to be increasingly intense and volatile. I feel scared, sad, and angry…and, at the same time, I also feel excited, hopeful, and ready.

We have a lot of work to do — within ourselves and our country. And, as Dr. King also famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Feel free to leave any comments or questions here, or directly on my blog.

Mike Robbins is the author of five books including his latest, We’re All in This Together, which released April 2020. He’s an expert in teamwork and leadership.

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