Editor's Note: An abridged version of this essay was originally published on Persuasion.com, and the full version appeared on Braver Angels.
We must surely have the answer, by now, to Langston Hughes’ question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” The poet wonders—“does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?…Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?” We have seen the explosion.
The belief, if not the reality, that the dream of Dr. King has been deferred has ignited beneath the knee of Derek Chauvin a conflagration that has birthed (for America’s progressive mainstream) the embrace of a corrective perspective: antiracism. Audacious and comprehensive, antiracism has swept into American institutions with the avenging fervor of a storm stirred river. Yet might the currents of antiracism threaten to defer the dream of King further still? For the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker and John Lewis that “this nation would one day rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed” is a dream born of the philosophy of nonviolence. America must reclaim nonviolence while reckoning with the rising tide of antiracism.
I grew up in the multicultural middle-class suburb of Culver City, California. My classmates were white, Jewish, Asian, Latino, Middle-Eastern and black . Being mixed black and white myself I more or less fell in between everyone. The liberal public school education I received centered much of what we learned about recent American history around the heroic contributions of one man—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. From elementary school to high school I generally had the impression that Dr. King’s prophetic vision of a promised land of racial harmony was one that had been reached. My family was integrated. So was my school. I had friends of all races in a country where 50 years earlier we would not have been able to eat together at the wrong lunch counter. My existence was living proof that the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. had been fulfilled.
For me it was. In an age where one almost expects some people to be upset to hear a black person say this, I have not experienced racism a day in my life in any way that had a lasting impact on me. But as an adult I know that the work of Dr. King and the nonviolent movement is incomplete.
This announces itself to me now in two ways. One is in understanding that the experience of many in black America falls wildly out of step with my own in a country where deep racial problems remain. Two is in recognizing that the substance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s teachings have not been adequately taught to Americans and were not taught to me. The rise of antiracism and the excesses of the modern social justice movement is a direct reflection of both of these facts. It is an indictment of our betrayal of the nonviolent movement, not through rejection, but through neglect.
Ibram X. Kendi is four years older than I am. Like most in our generation, King was passed down to Kendi as the preeminent figure in the recent history of American (and Black) social progress. That is probably why the young Ibram Rogers chose to speak as if from King’s voice in the Prince William County Martin Luther King, Jr. oratorical contest as a senior in high school.
Kendi, probably America’s foremost proponent of antiracism, recounts the moment in the introduction to the bestselling How To Be An Antiracist. It is a moment he recounts with chagrin. Though well received by the judges, Kendi imitated the cadence of King’s I Have a Dream Speech to deliver an address that chastised black Americans for falling short of their potential.
“They think it’s okay to climb the high tree of pregnancy!” he recalls saying. “They think it’s okay to confine their dreams to sports and music!” These words would come to represent a betrayal of Kendi’s later convictions, a source of continuing shame.
“I was a dupe, a chump who saw the ongoing struggles of Black people on MLK Day 2000 and decided that Black people themselves were the problem.”
Kendi was on a journey. His journey would take him beyond a repudiation of this early flirtation with a superficial sort of black conservatism towards a more complete repudiation of the mainstream narrative of American racial progress post-Civil Rights movement.
In other words, the narrative I would long embrace. The narrative I still partially hold on to.
This is a narrative of American racial history that tells us that the major victories against racism in this country were won with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. It is a story of our history that says that therefore the struggles of the black community following the death of Dr. King are largely of our community’s own making and are the black community’s own responsibility. It is a telling that seizes upon the election of Barack Obama, America’s first black (and mixed race) president, as the symbolic culmination of Dr. King’s integrationist dream.
“The word ‘racism’ went out of fashion in the liberal haze of racial progress, Obama’s political brand,” Kendi writes in explaining the advent of the word “microaggression” as something of a substitute term. It is a term which Kendi rejects for diminishing the un-receded reality of racism as the driving force in American life. “I detest the postracial platform that supported its sudden popularity.”
That post-racial platform brought me into politics as a young activist precisely because it rang with echoes of Kingian idealism. “There’s not a Black America and White America and Latino America and Asian America,” Barack Obama proclaimed in the speech that introduced him to the country in 2004. “There’s the United States of America!”
“Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout, ‘White power!’ when nobody will shout, ‘Black power!’ but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.” So Dr. King spoke a year before his death in 1967.
For Ibram Kendi, Alicia Garza, Nikole Hannah-Jones and the leaders of our modern antiracist movement these sentiments are dangerous. They are weaponized in the form of a color-blind ideology that obliterates the racial reality of black experience and white supremacy even as antiracists agree that race is fundamentally a social construct. Antiracism demands a fierce recognition of our racial categories so that the reality of racism in our society cannot be overlooked.
Post-racial commentators like Thomas Chatterton-Williams deny the utility of this attitude. As he told me in a recent conversation “I just don’t see how you can hyper-focus on racial differences and also believe that you’ll ever transcend them.” Yet for all of my own post-racial biases I myself begin to wonder if the antiracist consensus is not more right than it is wrong on this point? There are deep-seated structural realities to American history and contemporary life which conspire to make life materially more difficult for African-Americans in my view. These realities bleed directly into our social psychology. Can we name these realities without naming race?
Yet even if this is true it does not negate the patriotic idealism of a young Senator Barack Obama. Nor does is it nullify the spiritual force of the racially transcendent moral exhortations of Martin Luther King. For the deep power of nonviolence, and its indispensability in the work of social justice, stems from its rootedness in deeper human truths that supersede race.
These are the truths we risk forgetting in our antiracist rage.
Rage is not too strong a term. In a talk actually titled What Drives Me is Rage Nikole Hannah-Jones identified rage as her motivation as a journalist for telling the story of America’s racist abandonment of genuine school integration following the late 1980’s. As she tells it, educators, journalists, parents and policy makers collectively ignored the fact that educational outcomes for black students declined in direct correlation to de facto re-segregation of American public schools over time. This happened in Jones telling because white parents used their privilege to preserve access to better schools for their own children at the expense of children of color in a tacit revival of the fallacy of “separate but equal.”
“What drives me is rage,” Jones declared. “Because I think what we’re doing to children is wrong.”
Nothing could be more understandable than rage in response to injustice. And rage is very much a theme of our times. In the antiracism movement we see it erupting in our culture of protest both in the streets and on campus. This is obvious of course in the minority of cases where protests have turned to looting, assault, or where protestors have clashed with counter protestors or police. But righteous rage is also discernible in the chants of “no justice, no peace, no racist—police!” and in the black-gloved fists sprouting into the air at many a Black Lives Matter demonstration.
This note about rage is not a condemnation. Only an observation. Flip the channel from Fox News to CNN during one of the president’s rallies and one will be treated to the rage of Trump supporters decrying the media, calling on the president’s enemies to be locked up and bludgeoning a counter protestor on occasion. Americans vomit their vitriol on Twitter and Facebook every day. Rage is but an ordinary charm of our politics in 2020.
But antiracism strives for a social progress that goes beyond any particular election. The black freedom tradition of which nonviolence in the Kingian tradition and antiracism are both a part is a long ranging enterprise seeking not merely changes in law and institutions but transformations in our social spirit. One has to believe in the human capacity for transformation on all of these levels for deeper change to unfold. But such optimism is not an obvious feature of the antiracist culture we live in.
In that same address Nikole Hannah-Jones made the sad commentary that “I’m very jaded. I actually don’t expect anything I write to ever make a difference.” One of the constant critiques of antiracist ideology is that it paints a picture of America and even Americans as irredeemable. This criticism may be overblown but it is not hard to see where it comes from.
In The New York Times 1619 Project, Jones states that “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country…” Jamelle Bouie writes that “America holds onto an undemocratic assumption from its founding: that some people deserve more power than others.” Bryan Stevenson adds “Slavery gave America a fear of black people and a taste for violent punishment. Both still define our prison system.” The tone of such observations produces a feeling in critics and proponents of antiracism alike that the prospects of washing away a reality of white supremacy so deeply stained upon the character of our society must surely be dim. For those who see things in such a way all that this attitude leaves room for is the attempted satiation of rage.
But the antiracist portrait of America is bleaker still. For certain prominent versions of it at least convey a clear declaration that not only is racism embedded in our structures but that it is also universally stained upon the psychology of white people. According to this teaching, both for individuals and whites collectively, it is a power based prejudice that may never be fully overcome.
This is very much the position of Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility. Seeing herself as a white person whose racism may be eased in its symptoms but never likely to be cured, DiAngelo describes the basic psychological blocks that lock unconscious white supremacy into place and manifest in the emotional short circuiting that is “White Fragility.”
“I began to see what I think of as the pillars of whiteness—the unexamined beliefs that prop up our racial responses. I could see the power of the belief that only bad people were racist, as well as how individualism allowed white people to exempt themselves from the forces of socialization. I could see how we are taught to think about racism only as discrete acts committed by individual people, rather than as a complex, interconnected system…
“…One of the greatest social fears for a white person is being told that something that we have said or done is racially problematic…we often respond with anger and denial. Such moments can be experienced as something valuable, even if temporarily painful, only after we accept that racism is unavoidable…”
DiAngelo’s method, which the popularity of White Fragility has helped seed into the diversity, equity and inclusion work of institutions across America, is decidedly non-empathetic. It focuses upon confronting white people with the evidence of their racism in a manner that triggers the very fragility DiAngelo identifies as problematic.
“How do I tell so-and-so about their racism without triggering white fragility?” DiAngelo recalls a white participant at one of her equity trainings as asking. Her response is blunt: “How would I tell you about your racism without triggering your white fragility?”
In White Fragility, DiAngelo recounts multiple examples pulled from her equity trainings of white people being triggered to anger, defensiveness or tears after being identified as the carrier of racist or problematic behavior in the company of their colleagues. Presumably, the purpose of these methods is to trigger reflection on the part of the privileged. But in more than 150 pages not one example is given of a scenario that actually unfolded in this way. Perhaps there are some that, for whatever reasons, DiAngelo chose not to share. Still, it is hard not to suspect an attitude here that sees something desirable in stirring emotional consternation in entitled white people in and of itself.
Michael Eric Dyson seemed to savor this very effect. In the foreword to the book he states, “Robin DiAngelo kicks all the crutches to the side and demands that white folk finally mature and face the world they’ve made…”
From such harsh approaches to racial intervention to troubling episodes of people being harassed at their homes and in restaurants for their privilege, there is a certain gratification that some in our larger antiracist movement derive from kicking the crutches out from under white people. It is not hard to argue that this instinct may prove itself to be counterproductive. The question is how may nonviolence emerge as the moral light that guides our modern social justice culture? How may nonviolence steer us through our larger politics of disdain?
It is evident that there are those within the antiracist movement today who understand, to some degree at least, that social grace must be a feature of a movement that would seek to change the consciousness of this nation. One hears this reflectiveness in the words of Layla Saad, author of Me and White Supremacy. “The aim is not to get White people to feel so self-loathing and ashamed [sic] that that will create equality. That doesn’t create equality that just creates stuckness. The aim is bring this stuff up to the surface, own it, take accountability for it. Change it.”
Ibram X. Kendi creates more room for this grace in his thinking than do antiracist voices like Robin DiAngelo. Kendi goes out of his way to speak of the universal beauty of all human tribes. He argues explicitly, whereas DiAngelo only seems to allow begrudgingly, that “racial inequity is a problem of bad policy, not bad people…”
More fundamental than anything however, Kendi establishes a principle of anti-hatred in his own schematic of antiracism that finds harmony with nonviolence. In How To Be An Antiracist Kendi recalls a period of his life in which he found himself a hater of white people. Like Malcolm X before him, Kendi grows towards a new point of view.
Breaking with antiracists like DiAngelo and most others, Kendi rejects the idea that only white people can be racist. (The standard antiracist argument says that this is because black people cannot have power, but Kendi to my mind correctly points out that such an assertion is not only incorrect but disempowering, encouraging black people to neither own nor be held accountable for the power they do have.) Black people can be racist, and that racism is not only wrong but contrary to the black freedom struggle. It takes contempt that should be directed against corrupt systems and relocates it against fellow human beings.
So Kendi argues: “In the end, anti-White racist ideas, in taking some or all of the focus off racist power, become anti-Black. In the end, hating White people becomes hating Black people.”
All of this said, author John McWhorter’s overarching criticism of antiracism rings true. It is a perspective that roots all American reality in an original sin for which there is no clear path to salvation. “…not only does the American individual harbor the original sin of being born privileged, but America itself is a product of a grand original sin, permeating the entire physical, sociological, and psychological fabric of the nation, to an extent no one could ever hope to undo…”
I work in the arenas of both politics and cross cultural facilitation. Since the surge of antiracist inspired activism, as well as diversity, equity and inclusion programming in institutions, I have received a quiet avalanche of outreach asking for my guidance on how to deal with the problems it presents from people who are fundamentally sympathetic with its aims.
There is a tremendous rise in interest across America today in the work of achieving equity for the African-American community and building inclusivity in our institutions beyond what some might call the superficial tokenism of the past. There is a desire to embrace the essential ends of social justice in a manner that leaves leaders and managers across institutions wanting to be in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
But almost invariably the outreach I receive are quiet calls of distress from parties who do not know how to deal with the excesses of such an ideological movement while preserving their ability to service their larger mission. Government agencies and elected officials cannot broach productive conversations between communities and law enforcement because a new generation of activists overwhelms older community representatives, preferring demonstration to negotiation. Departments of education, social impact entities and corporations cannot bridge divides between communities because disagreements over the implications of privilege and different parties “standing to speak” often leaves white people (and others) feeling marginalized and disrespected by DEI work. This is so even as their resentment and organizational efforts to placate them leaves people of color and members of the LGBTQ community feeling diminished and unheard.
The fundamental problem at play here is that antiracism concerns itself chiefly with the work of seizing and exploiting social and political power as means of remedying the imbalance of power in society. In so doing its culture of internal character building stands stunted. The art of building relationships across differences that may yield stable and enduring social consensus stands undeveloped. It does not see beyond confrontational activism. It fails to understand what nonviolence intimately knows.
Though it seems clear to me that he is not completely blind to its moral power, Ibram Kendi breaks decisively with part of the vital spirit of nonviolence. Though Kendi sets a mature example in calling upon antiracists to listen to others (“How can antiracists ask racists to open their minds and change when we are close-minded and unwilling to change?”) he discounts the greater efficacy of goodwill in social and political persuasion to change hearts and minds in ways that impact society at scale.
While respecting King, Kendi ultimately dismisses his method. “Moral and educational suasion [breeds] the assumption that racist minds must be changed before racist policy, ignoring history…”
Kendi’s argument is that it was ultimately the political success of the Civil Rights Movement in changing law that allowed for the changing of American social attitudes. When white Americans in particular began to see that they had nothing to fear from integration after new laws were passed social attitudes began to liberalize accordingly. The key piece in Kendi’s analysis therefore is not persuasion but power. And he cites King himself in support of this view, who said in 1967 that “We’ve had it wrong and mixed up in our country, and this has led the Negro Americans in the past to seek their goals through love and moral suasion devoid of power.”
King was indeed concerned with power, and did more and more come to focus the tools of nonviolence upon the achieving of power within society. But King had a more expansive understanding of power than Kendi, which is to say that the definition of true power that nonviolence operates upon differs from the mere material version which antiracism prescribes. It was an understanding of power that wed the persuasive and moral power of agape love to the aims of achieving political equality in a formula that dignified the humanity of both the seeker of justice as well as the opposition. Kendi is right to see a tension between these two. But it is a tension that must give way to balance. It must never give in to the dismissal of love as the core attribute of real power.
Thus King wrestled with this tension without ever retreating from the moral foundations of nonviolence. He maintained this posture through the entirety of his career.
“I am not calling for an end to sympathetic understanding and abiding patience; but neither sympathy nor patience should be used as excuses for indecisiveness. They must be guiding principles for all of our actions, rather than substitutes for action itself.”
It is well that he didn’t. It is true that the passage of key Civil Rights laws were themselves the vital strategic pieces that allowed for American attitudes on Civil Rights and social integration to changes broadly. But achieving those reforms required the establishment of an initial critical mass of broad and diversified support that was itself only possible to achieve through the humanizing means of nonviolence. This is easily demonstrated by the breadth of the support galvanized by the nonviolent movement behind the program of civil rights in contrast to that of the more aggressively militant social movements that rivaled it.
And yet, it is those movements that provide more of the ancestry of today’s social justice activism than does the philosophy of nonviolence. The strident echoes of black power ring out loud in today’s activism. Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael are upheld as principle role models in today’s black freedom struggle. Angela Davis remains a patron saint of modern social justice work. Humanizing figures like James Baldwin and King himself are recast as something closer to traditional radicals to link them to today’s activist culture without committing ourselves to the deeper substance of their perspectives.
Malcolm X should be a hero to today’s activists in many, many ways. Each of the figures I mentioned above are worth understanding, respecting and even admiring for their many contributions to the black freedom struggle. This is true even as we must recognize their errors and limitations.
But the more conventional modes of militancy were appealing in the 1960’s for precisely the reason they are appealing today: they are easier paths than nonviolence.
Nonviolence is a harder discipline, both morally and strategically. It requires mastery of the inward person in a way that stills the grunts of anger and uplifts the voice of conscience. It requires an unending forgiveness of those who wrong us. And it demands that this spirit be mobilized in our activism in a way that flows from the heart.
The Indian philosopher Karuna Mantena wrote about the nonviolence of Gandhi (which directly inspired the work of Dr. King and his philosophical tutor Bayard Rustin) and how it expressed itself in the Indian Independence movement’s culture of protest:
“Marches were…to be slow and deliberate. Songs and prayers cultivated unity, solidarity, and emotional resolve among protestors…to onlookers they communicated something equally important, an inner calm and resiliency that is very different from what we now associate with the paradigm of disruptive protest…Nonviolence chooses to whisper rather than scream, to draw people close and cultivate the willingness to listen.”
The willingness to listen to the opposition receded with the death of Dr. King. This was consequence not just of the absence of King’s voice but the presence of his success.
The heirs of the Civil Rights movement found themselves at the forefront of well-placed organizations, elected to office and otherwise elevated in the esteem of mainstream American society. Some such leaders, like John Lewis, would faithfully embody the spirit of nonviolence throughout their careers. Most, like Jesse Jackson, would find themselves joining streams with more conventional activists and/or otherwise becoming absorbed into the broader ecosystem of Democratic politics where the deeper language of nonviolence began disappearing from their vocabularies. These opportunities were purchased by the success of the movement. But in general, the spirit of the movement was never nourished in the halls of power.
This is not to say that the spirit of nonviolence did not survive. It died in the mainstream of American social and political discourse even as the iconographic culture of idol worship swelled around King’s memory. But while the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday was being petitioned for in the 1980’s stronger testament to King’s teachings were visible in local nonviolent movements. These sprang to life to apply principles learned in the movement to the tasks of mobilizing communities and organizing solutions to material problems.
Examples include BUILD (Baltimorians United in Leadership Development) led by former leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, including the Reverend Vernon Dobson. BUILD used nonviolent organizing methods to rally the community of Baltimore to raise funds for every one of the cities high school graduates to attend college. The work of BUILD continues to this day.
Examples include the work of the EBC (Eastern Brooklyn Churches) which utilized nonviolent principles to push the city to renovate its parks and install hundreds of needed street signs. Their members worked together across religious and ethnic lines (Protestants, Catholics, African-Americans, Poles and Italians) to win the support of Brooklyn’s political establishment and to ultimately build over 4000 single family homes in the New York City borough.
Braver Angels (a national, bipartisan organization for which I work as an ambassador and member of staff) facilitates political organizing and cross cultural dialogue in communities, campuses and organizations through methods motivated by principles of nonviolence. The popular diversity, equity and inclusion program known as the Theory of Enchantment developed by Chloe Valdary explicitly applies many of these same principles in cross-cultural trainings in companies across America.
We think of nonviolence as a form of activism. But clearly it is more than that. In Stride Towards Freedom King enumerates the principles of nonviolence.
Nonviolence is active. The wielder of nonviolence is one whose “mind and emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade his opponent that he is wrong.
Nonviolence is humanizing. It “does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.”
Nonviolence is forgiving. It is aimed “against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil.”
Nonviolence is suffering, and a willingness to endure the assaults of our opponents without returning in kind. To explain this, King quoted Gandhi as stating that “Suffering is infinitely more powerful than the law of the jungle for converting the opponent and opening his ears which are otherwise shut to the voice of reason.”
Nonviolence is loving. “The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love.”
Nonviolence is hopeful. It “is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Consequently, the believer in nonviolence has deep faith in the future.”
It may be hard for us to believe that the universe is on the side of justice. It may be hard for us therefore to have deep faith in the future. But perhaps we may ultimately believe that the human heart tends to be on the side of love. And this may be enough to remind us of nonviolence’s capacity to change America.
The question for us is will we forget the strides that we have made as a country in our efforts to humanize one another even in the face of mass incarceration and persisting inequality of opportunity? This question is, will we forget the moral power that touched the conscience of our nation even as the road to a society of full peace and brotherhood still stretches out before us?
I cannot forget these strides. I cannot fail to appreciate the power of nonviolence. If racism has set the stage for the persistent disparities of modern black life, nonviolence has helped opened the door for an historic expansion of the black middle class. If racism has distorted our institutions through history to now nonviolence has opened up the cultural centers of America to uplift African-Americans to the highest stations of national honor. If racism has pitted us against each other as warring tribes, nonviolence has brought us that much closer to coming together as family. If racism is the great enemy of American idealism nonviolence is the truest ally of the beloved community.
The standards of nonviolence are high. They are out fashion. They are hard to commit to. But we must decide as a people to commit to them. For we have not yet tried to wield love in its fuller power to advance social progress and racial healing in this modern age.
Let us make this choice and move beyond the limits of mere antiracism. Let us make this choice and strive towards the dream.
John Wood Jr. is a national leader for Better Angels, a former nominee for congress, former Vice-Chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County, musical artist and a noted writer and speaker on subjects including racial and political reconciliation. He has a Center bias.