Calling all white people, part 5: Misusing MLK

Calling All White People, Part 5

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Misusing MLK…Every Day
[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

By God, we sure do like to invoke the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (a.k.a. MLK) a lot, don’t we? And by “we” I don’t mean the collective “we” of humanity—I mean we white people. And by “invoke,” I mean mostly posting MLK quotes online.

So often when a liberal (or moderate) white person wants to appear sensitive, progressive and enlightened, out comes an MLK quote. When someone is feeling a bit uncomfortable with Black activism and wants to “correct” Black people on the scope or level of their behavior (be they outright protests or even mild rebukes toward whitefolk), out comes an MLK quote.

Hell, when outright racists or ignorant trolls want to act the fools, out come the MLK quotes. Better yet, out come MLK quotes along with statements like “If Martin Luther King were alive today, I think he’d be supporting/defending Jeff Sessions and criticizing John Lewis.” (the former being Trump’s attorney general nominee who has a history of racism; the latter being a Black U.S. representative who got beaten up and arrested many times protesting and standing up for what’s right during the Civil Rights-era…if you think MLK would be pro-Jeff Sessions you need some history and/or immediate medical assistance).

But as so often happens, I digress. I’m writing this post on MLK Day; I know BGIM won’t be posting this until sometime after MLK Day, but still, context matters. (BGIM decided this post should run on MLK Day) 

This post was inspired by a humorous fake quote meme I saw on social media with a picture of MLK and this inset with the photo:

“White people, stop quoting me.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.

The problem isn’t that MLK isn’t eminently quotable. He is. But all too often, and mostly by white people, his quotes are misused over and over.

We love to share the feel-good ones but ignore the more pointed ones like 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 the stride toward freedom is not the White citizens’ “Councilor” 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 can’t agree with your methods of direst action” who paternistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

That’s from MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” by the way. We white people should do a lot more reading and sharing of that and a lot less of the “I have a dream” speech.

Point is, we need to stop trotting out MLK for the most part, my fellow whitefolk. Sure, there will be times it’s meaningful, particularly when we need to put someone in their place because they’re misusing MLK and need a quote more representative of MLK’s overall and long-term views. Because so many of us who are white don’t know crap about MLK. We see him as this peaceful, soft-spoken man who wanted peace above all else.

But in truth, while he preached non-violent protest, he didn’t preach peace. He preached fundamental change. Upsetting the apple cart. Rewriting society. He wanted not just an end to racism but to reshape capitalism itself because of the way it mistreats the average worker—among other radical social views he held that would uproot most of what we’ve grown accustomed to in this country.

So, think twice before you go quoting MLK or saying you know how he would feel or act regarding some situation or issue when you have only the barest, thinnest knowledge of what he stood for. And I say this as someone who himself has a pretty low-level, basic knowledge of MLK’s  life and times. But the thing is, knowing that about myself, I also don’t go around invoking him. That said, while I may not be an expert, I am eminently qualified to tell y’all that most of you who share my “pale persuasion” skin tone know less than me and really should tread lightly around summoning MLK into any conversation, whether online or off.

And despite my lack of deep knowledge, at least I can say, unlike most white people, that I’ve read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and now, I’d really suggest most of you do, too. Right now. Peace
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The ACA and the house that hate built

I got to suffer the lack of employer-sponsored health insurance beginning all the way back in 2002. 2002 was the year that I moved from Chicago to Maine to make joint custody work better for my family. In choosing to make life better for our family, I gave up employer-sponsored health insurance, naively assuming that good health insurance wouldn’t be that hard to obtain. I was wrong.

Maine is a strange state (in that there are few health insurance companies and thus little competition to rein in costs of that insurance). When I landed in Maine my then life partner was a full-time freelance editor and I was doing piecemeal work which meant that our only option for health insurance was to buy our own. We ended up in a high-deductible, catastrophic plan that covered very little. It covered so little that when I went into labor in 2005 with our daughter and had to be transferred to the hospital from the freestanding birth center where I had intended to give birth, virtually nothing was covered despite 36 hours in the hospital.

I would carry the debt from her birth for many years.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been a blessing, albeit a complicated blessing for me. After years of being marginally insured and at times even uninsured, it has meant that I have consistent access to care. I don’t qualify for the subsidies and I still have unpaid medical debt, but paying off a few thousand dollars over time is vastly better than having tens of thousands of dollars that you can’t even afford the minimum payments on. There is peace of mind in knowing that I can have checkups, allergy meds which I used to regularly skip and stability in my care. The ACA is far from perfect but for millions of Americans, it was better than what we used to have.

Now it seems that care may come to an end thanks to the GOP and their desire to gut all things related to Obama. Overnight on January 12, the United States Senate voted to take the first step in repealing Obamacare despite having no replacement in sight. Donald Trump ran on a platform that included repealing Obamacare, though it seems many Trump supporters who championed that decision are waking up to the cold  reality that Obamacare is actually the nickname for the Affordable Care Act that many of them also use. Many of them think Obamacare is the evil plan and that the ACA is some other “mostly good” plan existing separately. They think they are protected by the ACA when Obamacare goes away. Surprise! They are one and the same. That nickname “Obamacare” is something that the GOP has been happy to exploit to make people hate and support removal of something they actually use and rely on.

Yes, there are some who support Trump and GOP efforts and know Obamacare and the ACA are the same thing and want that plan gone regardless. Most of them because they were among the relatively few who didn’t get subsidies or saw their premiums rise (partly because of concessions that had to be made to the GOP to get the ACA passed to begin with) or who are still mad because some of them couldn’t keep their doctors after President Obama made the naively overconfident statement that everyone would be able to keep their doctors.

The loss of the ACA will be catastrophic for millions of Americans. Many of them voters or  who are largely responsible for the GOP getting control of both houses of Congress and giving Trump the presidential victory.

Pre-existing conditions and financial concerns for healthcare cut across racial, gender and class lines; however, when you are so focused on hating a man because of the color of his skin and one’s unchecked bias, well…in that case, you vote for an unstable, unqualified, ego-driven man whose first act even before he has taken the oath of office is to put in place the framework that will effectively deny health coverage to millions of people. The process to remove the ACA has already gone into turbo mode, and neither Trump nor the Congress have any plan to replace it.

My lane in this space is generally race and middle-aged musings, but today I am mad as hell and you ought to be mad as hell too! Over the past eight years, we as a nation have had to grapple with the reality that race matters in ways that many white people have really struggled to grasp as we labored under the post-racism myth. Make no mistake, post-racism is and was a pipe dream and the ascension of Donald Trump to the highest office in America is proof. You don’t elect your first Black president ever and follow it up with a man who openly stokes the fires of racism, misogyny, Islamophobia and a host of nasties without that level of evil sitting in the hearts of the people.
America was built on a foundation of hate and hate may very well be our undoing as a nation. If the hate doesn’t kill us, lack of access to healthcare might very well do it.

Note: Yes, I do have a full-time job but the realty of a four person non-profit with an operating budget under $250,000 is that we don’t have employer-sponsored health coverage for the staff because we can’t afford and as the Executive Director of Community Change Inc. I know the organizational budget as well as I know my own personal budget. Small, grassroots nonprofits often lack the amenities of our grown-up brethren, such as retirement plans and health insurance. 
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Calling all white people, part 3: Stepping on toes

Calling All White People, Part 3

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Step In and Step On Some Toes
[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

White people, by and large, really want Black people to fix the problem of racism. Even the ones who support anti-racism efforts or only realize in some vague way that there are still racial injustices that they can’t quite pinpoint often put the onus on Black people to educate people about racism, to organize things, to somehow be the racial repairmen. There is a feeling that if enough Black people do enough of something, with only a little help from white people, they can overturn the entire problem of racism in the United States.

Even though white supremacy and anti-Black racism was created by white people, who are a majority. Even though white people are mostly the ones who benefit from and prop up every institution, business, and process that fuels systemic racism and institutional bias. Even though most people (even when they recognize something called white privilege exists) who are white don’t really want to share and don’t want to give up any of the benefits of whiteness being utterly centered as the norm in U.S. culture and government.

Somehow, roughly 13% of the population, holding very little of the wealth and almost none of the political or social power, is supposed to do all the heavy lifting.

We white people who “hate racism” but who descend from those who created the problem by elevating whiteness, we who continue to perpetuate white supremacy actively or passively, want to just to just be spectators to the fixing of the problem. That fixing to be carried out by those who are among the most burdened and adversely affected by racism in this country.

It’s like asking the abused wife and children to fix the violent patriarch of the household and make him a better person.

No, the responsibility to make things fair (or as close as possible) and to eradicate racial biases from our institutions and societal systems (as much as is possible) rests with us white people.

Now, I know what you’re thinking already: “I can’t fix a problem that big!” (And yet you expected Black people to? Shame, shame, shame). Well, the journey of a thousand miles begins, as they say, with a single step.

So step up. Step in. Step on some toes.

Whose toes?

Your friends. Your family members. The guy at the bus stop who just told you a racist joke. Your kid’s racially insensitive teacher. The ignorant neighbor. Those people. Those other white people who may not be as aware of you are that racism is still a problem. Or who deep down know it is but don’t really care because it doesn’t impact them. Or who like white supremacy and need to be reminded they have many white opponents to that notion.

It is up to you as a white person at the holiday dinners or social gatherings to be willing to call out other white people who do racist things or make racially insensitive remarks.

It is up to you as a white person to learn about systemic racism and institutional bias and how it came to be and why it still gets perpetuated. There are too many resources and Google is too good at searching for you to be demanding that Black people tell you all this. Many of them have already written about it anyway. And once you’ve educated yourself, it’s up to you to teach other white people and to correct people when they hold on to incorrect views about race and about Black people (and to counter those who perpetuate the lies).

The problem won’t get fixed overnight. But every day you shy away from challenging racist actions directly or fail to call out a person who’s just done something racist is one more day you’ve added to the problem. One more day’s worth of shoring up a damaged system and reinforcing that wall that stands between marginalized people and justice/equity.


If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.