By: Tom De Ceglie
I am often struck by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, and today these words have resonated with me: “One of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.” This excerpt is from his “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” speech delivered at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., on 31 March 1968, just days before he was assassinated.
And, before I get started, I want to properly contextualize myself: I was educated in a “traditional” school with a tacit white supremacy curriculum–so these words are new to me. I “learned” about King, but not really. I learned just enough for me to quote him in a way that would support the status quo for many years, even in my own classroom, lamentably. I was and still am ignorant. I was and still am racist. Recently, I have been forced to re-envision my concept of history–taking graduate school courses on diversity in education, reading literature by Black and Brown voices, listening to my Black and Brown friends with lived-experiences vastly different from my own, and educating myself on the oppressive history of the United States has made me realize my extremely narrow worldview and has encouraged me to broaden it to be a positive change agent and advocate for dismantling racist policies and replacing them with anti-racist policies supported by politicians who strive to be anti-racist.
The United States has been in a racial revolution for its entire history, and most white people have been sleeping through that revolution. I have been asleep for that revolution for most of my life. I have always considered myself “not racist,” but I’ve come to learn from Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Anti-Racist that there’s no such thing as “not racist.” You are either working to be anti-racist or you are racist. “Not racist,” isn’t some middle ground you can inhabit because being in the middle concerning racism means tacitly endorsing it. Do you know who calls themselves “not racists”? Racists. David Duke has called himself “not racist,” Donald Trump has called himself “not racist,” Richard Spencer has called himself “not racist” and every single racist ever has called themselves “not racist.” So, forgive me when I am skeptical of people calling themselves “not racist.” I would like to believe that I am “not racist” but since I am definitely not perfect (no quotation marks necessary), I am definitely racist. Since I know that about myself, since I know that I have privileges from my skin color, that I benefit from the exploitation of others because of their skin color, and since I have a voice, I can use my power to advocate for those with less power and representation. I can work to be anti-racist. For a white person to consider him or herself “not racist” is to be asleep during a revolution; to consider yourself “not racist” is to never develop new attitudes, new mental responses, that our nation’s revolution demands. White people: Do not stay asleep this time. Wake up and stay awake.
Even though King’s speech is over 50 years old, it is so incredibly timely. King goes on to state that “[t]here can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in the world today. In a sense it is a triple revolution: that is, a technological revolution, with the impact of automation and cybernation; then there is a revolution in weaponry, with the emergence of atomic and nuclear weapons of warfare; then there is a human rights revolution, with the freedom explosion that is taking place all over the world.” We are right here right now, and it is a stark reminder that King was targeted by the United States government, he was largely disliked by the American people, and he was ultimately assassinated for his “radical” positions and ability to galvanize the oppressed to make positive changes for increased equity. He was right–he has always been right. He is still right, but many Americans, especially white Americans, would rather stay asleep during this revolution than work to make equitable changes to our society. To increase freedom for all US citizens. The United States has “won” many revolutions: Against the oppressive tyrant king, against the traitorous Confederacy, against the fascist Nazis, military arms revolutions, technological revolutions, and so many more. But, the United States has often at best ignored the revolution against poverty and injustice, or at worst enshrined policies and procedures that actively work to exploit poverty and injustice to benefit the richest Americans.
It is increasingly funny (in a sad, anger-inducing way) when I see conservatives praising King’s words when King himself was a globalist who recognized that the world is our community in need of a “world perspective” to create a brotherhood among nations. I would be remiss to not mention the liberals (especially white liberals like me) who also praise King’s words when many of us are the “white moderate[s]” he warned were the antithesis to social progress for all races. But, to talk about King’s words on racism without mentioning his view of capitalism is dangerous territory, and, according to Kendi, racism and capitalism are often inextricably intertwined. According to King, “It [poverty] becomes a kind of domestic colony. And the tragedy is, so often these forty million people are invisible because America is so affluent, so rich. Because our expressways carry us from the ghetto, we don’t see the poor.” How can a nation so affluent have such drastic outcomes for its racial demographics? Here’s the hard truth: Racist policies either maliciously maintained by overtly racist white people or passively maintained by covertly, asleep during the revolution white people.
For his entire career, King was a voice trying to awaken a nation, yet more than five decades later we are still very much asleep. The “we” here is white people–Black and Brown Americans have been living in a nightmare and are all too aware of the present situation and have been battling for equity and equality on the front lines with little to no support from their white brothers and sisters. Some are waking up to it, but almost all of those waking up are still in a type of reverie, unwilling to commit to the measures necessary for equity between races, genders, classes, and other important demographics.
Although I am not religious, I appreciate how King uses his deep knowledge of scripture not to indict wealth but to indict the misappropriation of it. Make no mistake: his words are a direct indictment of capitalism, further explained through Kendi’s view that capitalism and racism are “conjoined twins” and that “…the origins of racism cannot be separated from the origins of capitalism… the life of capitalism cannot be separated from the life of racism.” So, will we adopt and write anti-racist policies that increase equity for all races in the face of those policies being (erroneously) called “socialist” or “communist”? Policies like universal healthcare, universal childcare, maternal and paternal leave, providing a living wage, universal basic income, and so many more progressive policies. King was definitely a progressive and he knew that the United States had (and still has) the resources to provide for every one of its citizens. And, as King said: “[t]his is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”
I hope we do. I pledge to work to ensure that we do. And I hope that YOU, dear reader, work for the same outcomes. We can no longer be asleep during the revolution–we cannot be a “conscientious objector” to the war on injustice and inequity being waged right now. George Floyd’s murder didn’t start this revolution; Philando Castille’s murder didn’t start this revolution; Breona Taylor’s murder didn’t start this revolution; Sandra Bland’s murder didn’t start this revolution; Trevon Martin’s murder didn’t start this revolution; Rodney King’s brutal beating didn’t start this revolution; Malcolm X’s assassination didn’t start this revolution; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination didn’t start this revolution; no: this revolution has been on our shores since 1619, more than 400 years, and unless we pledge to change as a nation, it will continue to be waged indefinitely. This is not acceptable.
Earlier, I admitted my ignorance and racism. Too often, these words make white people foam at the mouth and drive them into a frenzied craze, as if it’s the worst thing in the world to be accused of these things. This is the product of white guilt, a victimization complex that white people too ignorant or unwilling to gain perspective wield to make the conversation on racism about them and their reactions rather than on the issues at hand: oppressive and racist institutions that hurt, silence, destroy Black and Brown lives. But, white reader: you are ignorant and you are racist. However, you must stop thinking of “ignorant” and “racist” as derogatory terms. They are purely adjectives. I am ignorant of many things, too, and there are times when I am racist–never intentionally, but I have blind spots I hope my friends, my education, my interactions help me to fix. I also hope that my friends call me on my ignorance and racism and sexism and ableism and any other ways that I contribute to inequity. I am not perfect and neither are you. We have to accept our contributions to inequity if we are ever going to make headway into fixing it. Are you able to work on yourself to make that happen? I am willing to take you on my journey if you’re willing to work to change for the better with me.
Tom De Ceglie is a high school teacher in Central Florida.