Moral Appeals Aren’t Enough

Against the Current, No. 177, July/August 2015

Robin D.G. Kelley

I’M GOING TO be brief. First of all, this is an excellent, amazing panel; I don’t actually need to add anything. Everything’s been laid out. So what I want to do is just amplify a couple of points and read a couple of quotes that I think are relevant for our discussion.

The first point is that all of these talks, and this movement in particular, speak to the disposability of Black life, of Black people being treated as refuse. Secondly, what this movement recognizes is that we cannot change ideology through moral appeals. When we talk about structural change, we’re not talking about tweaking a system, but completely destroying it and replacing it with something else. Right now, the current arrangement is unsustainable. You can’t reform your way out, you can’t politick your way out, you can’t respectabilize your way out. (I just made up a word.)

“Thug” has become an acceptable substitute for the N-word. We hear that all the time. It is the latest addition to the discursive arsenal of dehumanization.

I want to amplify what the panelists have been saying by reading two quotes and telling one story.
I don’t know if you know, but Anna Deavere Smith was here performing at the Broad Stage last Sunday. In fact, it was her performance of King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that prompted me to write my op-ed piece for the L.A. Times, “Baltimore and the Language of Change,” (May 4, 2015).

If you’re a big fan of Anna Deavere Smith, that’s great. But from where I sat, it was disappointing and problematic. She basically did a reading of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic “Letter from Birmingham Jail” — which was wonderful — but then made a huge leap from King’s injunction for militant, radical action to the alleged nihilism of contemporary Black youth, closing with the testimony of Congressman John Lewis (whom I love) essentially in tears because the white man who beat him came to his office to apologize a half century later.

Her two-pronged conclusion is that: 1) the problems we’re facing now cannot be easily attributed to racism; 2) reconciliation is at hand but requires forgiveness.

So I ask, how — on the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral and in the aftermath of the uprising — did she fail to grasp the very essence of the letter? And that is: why we won’t wait, why we must in some ways engage in revolutionary activity, why the violence to which King refers is not the product of protestors but the product of the state — this is what he’s saying in that letter.

So the audience — which was about 90% white — loved it, standing ovation, tears. Because what it did was to confirm for them that we’re on the right path (despite events in Baltimore, Ferguson, and elsewhere). And that path is about reconciliation and forgiveness, not about truth.

So in my original draft of today’s op-ed, I had a whole section about “Letter to Birmingham Jail” and Anna Deavere Smith, but I ended up taking it out because it didn’t fit.

I wanted to mention that because after the piece came out I got this really interesting email. I just want to read it — it’s from a guy named Richard Eide. And he said, just quoting part of it:

“The Michael Brown case was a legal and very reasonable shooting. Brown was not unarmed. He was armed with size and weight — 6’6” and 290 lbs. Officer Wilson was very much aware that if Brown was able to engage him in a wrestling match over the gun, Wilson was going to lose and Brown may just take away his gun or use it to kill Wilson. Every cop and the feds are all very much aware of this fact. Police are paid to assume risk, but it’s not a suicide job.

“It is a fact” — he really stated this — “that Brown, (Trayvon) Martin, Gray, and many others are the architects of their own deaths. If they had chosen to cooperate with police in their investigations instead of fighting and running, they all would still be here.”

And it goes on. What I’m saying here is that this is evidence of the disposability of Black life: that these Black men were already rendered criminals because they were armed with criminality in their actual bodies. They’re walking weapons. So you might as well just arrest or neutralize all of them now. Incredibly, he began his email by saying “well, I agree with most of what you say.”

But this is the point I want to make. What does it mean when we talk about the disposability of Black life? “Thug” works to make us trash. And it basically means that — and Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about this — “compliance” is the only legitimate or recognized response to injustice.

But that’s not justice. And what King says in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is that there can be no compliance so long as justice is denied, so long as the laws are unjust. The oppressed are obligated to comply with God’s law.

The wonderful thing about Black Lives Matter is that they’re saying you cannot use moral suasion to win this. You’ve got to disrupt, and make sure that things don’t work in order to make the demand for change.

This is not a mass movement. Let’s face it. Because there are more people in the U.S. who share Richard Eide’s perspective than that of Black Lives Matter, which is why the killing continues to take place.

And finally, I just want to end with a quote from Dr. King, because everyone quotes that speech, “The Other America.” Most people don’t read it, I have to say — they’ll quote that line about “riots are the language of the unheard.” He gave that talk many, many times between 1967 and his death in April 1968.

On March 14, 1968, he gave a version of the talk in South Grosse Pointe, Michigan, in which he said: “(W)e will never solve the problem of racism until there is a recognition of the fact that racism still stands at the center of so much of our nation and we must see racism for what it is. . . . It is the notion that one group has all of the knowledge, all of the insights, all of the purity, all of the work, all of the dignity. And another group is worthless, on a lower level of humanity, inferior. . . .”

And then he says, “The ultimate logic of racism is genocide…..” He wasn’t quoting anybody. Those were King’s words. “The ultimate logic of race is genocide.” And I mean that in a very physical way. We talk about social death, but there’s so many ways that we are being killed. Unless we acknowledge that, we won’t acknowledge we are in a state of emergency.

And so, I just wanted to end there, and take this movement to acknowledge and give some other folks who are actually involved in the BLM movement to speak. Shamell Bell is here, Thabisile Griffin is over there. So I want to give you both chances to speak and lay out some ideas.

And of course, the great Hank Jones is sitting right there; one of the members of the San Francisco 8, longtime activist and revolutionary who’s been involved in this movement and many others for a long time. So I want to just yield the time to you all first, and then open it up for questions. Thank you.

July-August 2015, ATC 177