Note: This is the second part of a two-part post. Read the first part here.
In 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. tackled the difficult work of building multiracial community directly in his conception of the Poor People’s Campaign. Dr. King saw in the Freedom Riders and his increasingly multiracial band of civil rights soldiers an early example of the beloved community he envisioned for the whole of America. One expression of his love for community was seeing the mutuality in all types of human suffering. As Dr. King famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In the end, he did not turn away from the hardest part of community building. In The Trumpet of Conscience, he wrote, “Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation.”
That idea of transcendence was critical to my thinking when writing my new book, Place, Not Race. In it, I attempt to apply the lessons from Dr. King’s theory of mutuality to the debate about affirmative action. I conclude that race-based affirmative action buys some diversity for a relative few, but not serious inclusion. It doesn’t help to build a movement to attack underlying systems of inequality that are eating away at the soul of our nation.
I believe Dr. King would argue, as I do, that the means of race pushes away potential allies in a way that makes it mathematically impossible to build multiracial alliances for sanity and common sense. We need corporations that share more profits with workers and that pay them equitably. We need banks that don’t exploit average people. We need governments that invest wisely in universal pre-k, in k-16 education, and in libraries. Dr. King once spoke of building “middle class utopias.” It seems to me that well-funded libraries that make world class content available for free would be the key to any utopian middle class community.
We also need a government that does not over-incarcerate high school dropouts of all colors. In the context of promoting diversity on college campuses, I argue that place is a better mechanism for encouraging alliances among those mutually excluded by current systems. Right now, struggling whites and peoples of color diverge politically and are not working together.
Early in my book, I explain why we are so gridlocked. I draw on social psychology research to explain our conflicting world views, why it is that facts don’t matter anymore in political debates. In a context of globalization, de-industrialization, and demographic change, struggling whites see opportunity for people like themselves contracting, while blacks and Latinos are more optimistic, even if they are not doing as well statistically. Among struggling whites, there are high levels of racial resentment about not getting ahead. Ironically, those who most feel this way are most likely to be opposed to government intervention—they see that as helping “others,” not themselves.
And yet, systems are rigged against all middle-income and poor people. Access to an excellent public school depends on your ability to buy your way into an affluent neighborhood. Access to employment depends on who you know and having skills that you may not be able to afford to acquire. Social mobility in the “land of opportunity” has ground to a halt. Meanwhile, without a strong, cohesive multiracial majority, there is little chance of enacting sound policies that might correct the underlying structures that create racial and economic inequality.
Nothing will get better, then, without reconciliation between sizeable numbers of whites and people of color. That is what Dr. King tried to teach us. That is what he died working on—a multiracial army for economic justice. There are plenty of commonsense ideas about how to create more, not less, opportunity in this country. What we need is a politics of fairness, one in which people of color, and the white people who are open to them, move past racial resentment. In my book I have a chapter titled “Reconciliation,” in which I discuss what social science suggests about how to best build multiracial coalitions and how to break down barriers of race. In essence, I argue that a language grounded in both the common harms of inequality as well as the common good, and that taps universal values of fairness, is the best route to building multiracial power.
When the values of whites and people of color converge, and real efforts are made to build alliances among them, transformative change ensues. The abolition of slavery, Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement, and Obama’s election are signature moments in our nation’s history that speak to our capacity for better race relations. I think the country is ripe for another leap forward in race relations, but progressives have to work at reconciliation to make it happen. Each social transformation has been followed by a period of backlash, and there is evidence that we are in such a period now. Dr. King’s response to this perennial challenge was always to appeal to our better angels. He often invoked our shared myths about America:
My country, ‘tis of thee
Sweet land of liberty,
of thee I sing…
The founding values of “We the People” and our self-evident truths are always subject to challenge, and each generation must fight to make these values real. Explicit racism that shows up in cyberspace, tragedies that render names like Trayvon a household word—these are warning signs, reminders that, in America, on matters of race, there is always a fire next time.
We, the people, have to get better at how we respond to it.
Sheryll Cashin, professor of law at Georgetown University, is the author of The Agitator's Daughter and The Failures of Integration, the latter an Editors' Choice book in the New York Times Book Review. Cashin has published widely in academic journals and print media, including in the Los Angeles Times,Washington Post, and Education Week. A frequent commentator on law and race relations, she has appeared on National Public Radio, CNN, ABC News, BET, and numerous other outlets. Her latest book is Place Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America, coming soon from Beacon Press.