I. recognizing difference and power
When you celebrate Dr. King, what are you cheering? Do you cheer the greatness of a man who fully knew his journey’s destination was insecure? The greatness of a man who paid the ultimate price so that my son could vote and sit in class alongside your children? If so, I am happy to join you. Do you celebrate his struggle as a resounding success that ushered in a new age of race relations? Do you intend to show appreciation for the notion that he helped us move past a difficult moment in American history? If so, then I cannot join you. And I fear that I observe the tendency to celebrate not so much the man but the hope that claiming him for all Americans exculpates us from the sins of inhumanity that is racial marginalization.
In a nation where blacks possess only on average a dime of wealth for every dollar of white wealth, how is this reclamation of scarce resources anything but the continuation of oppression by other means, the reduction of blacks to instruments of economic necessity and exploitation?
When others take up King as an exemplar of inspiration and peace but deny the persistent systemic inequalities affecting millions in the U.S., systems of power that King himself was killed for criticizing, or when others use King-as-myth like a baton against the frustration of Black communities after the unrest of recent years, Lebron would seem to be asking whether some symbolic wrong has taken place.
To whom does the myth belong, and how is it to be properly wielded? The battle for legitimacy is as much a part of what King preached as were his calls for solidarity. When one side denies the very legitimacy of the other, then the tension of meaning--what King-as-myth signifies--cannot resolve. Conflict ensues.
The problem of difference becomes clear: How do we reconcile the differences, the distinctions between various group experiences, identities and narratives while avoiding the urge to legitimize only one set of them to the exclusion of the others?
When it comes down to it, the ability give or deny legitimation is a question of power.
II. the importance of understanding the concept of the "other"
In his essay, Wendland explains how nationalism works to inculcate notions of sameness and otherness within groups:
Nationalism is the result of identification and differentiation and it follows from the similarities and differences we see between ourselves and others. As an American, you share the same upbringing with many of your fellow citizens. Your background is different than that of most Britons or Italians. And it is partially by recognizing the traits you share with Americans and then distinguishing them from citizens of other states that you develop your sense of identity.
But as Wendland points out, such constructions can be wielded to devastating effect:
[W]hile identification and differentiation enables the formation of personal identity, it can also result in hostility when the traits we use to distinguish ourselves from others are totalized and taken as absolute. “Totalization” occurs when members of one group take a feature of another group to be both definitive of that group and all members in it. Generalizations like “Americans are outgoing,” “Brits are reserved” and “Italians are passionate” are often unfairly applied to individual Americans, Britons or Italians. And negative stereotypes such as “Jews are greedy,” “Blacks are dangerous” and “Muslims are terrorists” have a history of leading to unjust aggression against members of those communities. In each of these examples, we reduce others to a simple or single category that distinguishes “them” from “us” in an absolute way. And this reduction often produces an allergic reaction to others; a reaction exemplified by the rush to build fences around Europe to keep Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian refugees out.
The act of "othering," of coming to see the other as an object rather than a being with whom one actually shares a fundamental sameness--humanity, with the spiritual potential that implies--enables us to project our fears, hatreds, our own self-loathing and self-consciousness upon them until we don't even recognize that we're doing it. Ideology comes to replace conscience; fear replaces discernment.
III. that we may harbor fewer and ever lesser illusions...
Invoking lines from the Biblical book of Revelation warning the self-sure Laodiceans of their unwitting blindness, King writes:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler 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 cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for 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.
Is this me? Is this you? How do we see the other? What governs our constructions of sameness and difference? And what governs our reaction to difference? Does fear make us perpetuate and reify that difference as something inevitable, natural, total? Do we put forth any effort toward understanding the other, attempting an approach toward their subjectivity, cutting through the layers of distinction until we find they are not so numerous or vast as we supposed, that even with difference there is perhaps still also some measure of sameness?
It would take no act of genius to notice that these three short arguments that I've made sidestep a winding, crab-like trail around their central biting questions. Writing as I am from a position of present privilege, not necessarily earned but no less real--and no less fraught for its reality--my intention is to nurture a still small hope that with effort we may yet learn to harbor fewer and ever lesser illusions than we did yesterday. The act of the question, though it waddle awkwardly across the sand, could perhaps be an adequate first step to change.