Many and vocal are the voices speaking out today against institutional or systemic racism in the USA. A growing awareness emerges that the racism once thought adequately addressed by the civil rights movement decades ago still prevails beneath the surface. Racism may have gone underground and become harder to pin down because of the camouflage it has acquired, but it is still operative in the United States. Like a virulent virus it has formed new strains that resist detection and eradication.
I propose here to shed some light on why this is true. Will this light be all the light needed to illuminate this topic? Hardly likely. But perhaps it will help some see more clearly the patterns that support racism and the treatment necessary to eradicate those patterns. To keep things simple I will draw upon Martin Luther King Jr.’s insights as starting points. The overarching pattern I observe is that we’ve not taken MLK Jr.’s insights to heart and applied them rigorously as far as they would take us if we did so. Having abandoned any commitment we may have once felt to be inspired to action by MLK Jr’s words, we now reap the consequences of abandoning his principles instead of remaining faithful to them while traveling together along the full length to which they would otherwise have taken us. To eradicate institutional racism we need to apply the antidote of principles espoused by MLK Jr. until they work their miracle of transformation fully.
First, I start with this observation made by Martin Luther King Jr.: “Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.” We have failed to admit to ourselves that laws may repress undesired actions but that they have never changed the underlying motives for socially destructive actions. Repression by punishment, sanctions, consequences, etc. forces the motivating attitudes underground. “Don’t ever let me catch you behaving that way again, young man!” berates a parent to a wayward son. Some sons change their attitudes within and do not misbehave again. Many sons simply become sneakier to make sure that their parents do not catch them misbehaving again but do not actually cease to misbehave. They learn to misbehave in ways not as readily detected by their parents. Thus it has been with making racism illegal. A change of heart is needed, even among the heartless. It is not enough to threaten to punish or impose consequences upon the heartless for misbehaving. Their thrills come from defying authority and seeing how craftily they can get away with misbehaving. It’s an ego-driven game with rewards of its own. We fail to admit that anyone who has become heartless on account of themselves having been treated heartlessly is likely to have become immune to change forced upon him or her by additional painful consequences. We need to stop the insane practice of trying to out-bully bullies (both within our nation and beyond).
If we are to truly learn anything from our decades of utterly failing to eradicate racism, it must include the insight that passage and enforcement of laws, no matter how artfully worded or rigorously enforced they may be, will not eradicate racism. What might the alternative be? How are the heartless transformed to consider being and then actually daring to become less heartless? How do we release ourselves from the prisons of heartlessness within which we seek to survive and instead make wholehearted empathy and compassion new prevailing norms in the USA? Surely we will not try to legislate empathy and compassion.
Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream about the alternative I have in mind: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He took the risk of dying while doing his part to make his dream come true, not merely for his children but for all children. And the risk he took materialized and he was silenced. We have repeated his dream speech many times since then. But as Eliza Doolittle sings in My Fair Lady, “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words. Is that all you blighters can do?” Words frequently repeated but rarely applied become slogans that lose their meaning. MLK Jr. was not a “blighter” who failed to put his words into meaningful, sustained action. Many of those who repeat his words contribute to the social blight of racism by being “blighters” who do fail to “walk the talk” as 12-steppers might say. Instead we tend to relapse into our egostic pursuits of choice and fall off the wagon of transformation needed to actually accomplish social justice. We are seduced in part by the appeal of social approval to which we remain addicted, an appeal to remain safely hunkered down in the crowd rather than to stick out our necks.
So it has been with MLK Jr.’s inspired dream. It died amid droning repetition of the words not matched by their vigorous application in our lives. His dream inspired and challenged us when he first revealed it. It does so yet today. But we have failed to respond. That is our failure. That is our own heartlessness revealed in stubborn apathy and resignation to the way things are as if that’s how things will inevitably always be. Until we overcome our own failure to respond and transform our own hearts, we are part of the problem and have no standing to prosecute those whose hearts remain hardened along with ours but whose violent actions, both overt and covert, remain expressed without restraint. To end the torrent of racism eroding our nation, each of us must cease to contribute our little stream of heartlessness and add instead our most wholehearted rivulet-grown-to-river participation in the alternative of which MLK Jr. dreamt and spoke and for which he lived fully until his life was cut short. We must stop resisting forward motion and instead begin relentlessly persisting in it.
Are we willing to fully and persistently participate in the alternative society that offers the only solution to systemic racism? Do children’s lives matter? To what degree? Are we willing to risk it all for the possibility that the children who matter to us will grow up to live in a nation that does not judge them by the color of their skin nor by any other superficial and unworthy criteria? MLK Jr. said “No one really knows why they are alive until they know what they’d die for.” Are we willing to lay down our lives for the sake of the children on whatever terms we are called to lay them down?
I suggest to you that dying for a cause is not the more difficult way to lay down your life. The more difficult ways of laying down one’s life involve continuing to live in the face of intense fears with the courage of one’s convictions no matter how unpopular those convictions may be in the minds of others. We must be willing to put at risk the very social approval by which our thinking, speech and actions are too often unconsciously censured, shaped and stylized. Once again, participating in public rallies, cheering (or even being) inspirational speakers and generally repeating the patterns of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the past are in vogue. Missing are the rigorously probing self-examination and repentance that will help us all let go of our attitudes and beliefs that support racism, sexism, heterosexism, ethnocentrism and other forms of egoism so as to deprive institutional and systemic expressions of those dehumanizing “isms” of support. Doubtlessly, MLK Jr. engaged in such self-examination and repentance. His private process of rigorously examining his own character to root out pockets of hypocrisy must become our own process.
To examine our institutions for signs of any “ism” (including the scourge of intellectualism) while failing to examine ourselves — as citizens of a republic who staff, patronize, support and give legitimacy to our institutions — for attitudes and beliefs that perpetuate all forms of “isms” is to fail once again to learn the lessons of history and doom ourselves to repeat them. Is our only goal to change the current flavor our egoism or to eradicate it entirely in all flavors? Will it be unpopular to call for examination of our individual and collective character so as to be capable of judging ourselves by the content of our character instead of by the color of our skin, age, ethnicity, religion, gender/gender orientation, sexual orientation, economic class, educational level, marital status, family type, etc.? Yes, but MLK Jr. had an insight for us here too: “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” He, she, we . . . let’s not quibble about pronouns now. We have more important issues to address. As writer Walter Kelly once said long ago through Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
The overarching pattern that we must address radically, at its roots, is the pattern of the ego’s dominance in our personal lives and elsewhere throughout our nation. The ego is based on fear. Fear is the opposite of love, which the ego has zero capacity to honor and share. Love is an anathema to the ego. Yet, love is also the antidote to fear because it is the only true alternative to fear. Fear corrupts our character, causes our hearts to harden and seduces us by alternative temptations to not be true to ourselves and to stray from our paths of transformation. We must apply the antidote of love rigorously as compassionately necessary to ourselves and to our neighbors without judgment or condemnation until all fear is released and we rise up together as “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Again repeating words makes us numb to their meaning unless we live them out radically through our own lives as if the welfare of the children depends on us. It does.
If we truly desire with all our hearts to lean not upon our own understanding, it is time to trust in the Higher Power from whom divine love flows for guidance, humble ourselves to shed our egos, forsake all attitudes of pride and shame as well as guilt and blame, and listen within our hearts to the still small voice of wisdom we’ve so rigorously repressed that our consciences barely make themselves heard. That’s our choice. I invite us all to join in participating in the radical healing of our nation of all the pain that our various forms of “isms” have inflicted upon us all, more upon some than upon others, but not sparing any of us. May we find within us our innate capacity to forgive ourselves and each other and rise up together — not to seek vengeance one against another but instead to seek victory in which we are all included.
I end now with one last quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.” That is the attitude that will save us from all of our less worthy attitudes and beliefs by which we’ve beset ourselves with violence by seeing each other as separate and unforgivably wrong, even as if some form of competitor if not an enemy combatant. Can we love and forgive our competition and our enemies, both those whom we find within our hearts in residence because they caused us pain in the past and we’ve not yet forgiven them as well as those who remain external to us but also remain unforgiven? Martin Luther King Jr. shared inspiring words about the power of persistently applied love as the ultimate solution but I’ll leave that quote for you to find.
© Art Nicol 2016