Why Are We Still Waiting?
These past two years have made me think long and hard about where we stand on the moral arc toward justice. This is why it has taken me two years to write and finally release this piece. Why do we seem to still be waiting for racial equity and justice? After coming across some of my favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quotes, I figured it would be symbolic to release something in honor of him. Much of what he has done, said, and written has been narrowed down, distorted, or forgotten. In this collection of Martin Luther King Jr. quotes, I hope to enlighten some folks on where his views were and bring it into perspective with where we are today. With that, let’s begin with one of my favorites:
“Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man is entering the starting line in a race 300 years after another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up with his fellow runner.” - Why We Can’t Wait (King, 1964)
In my lifetime there have been many opportunities where I thought society was getting to the point of starting to reconcile with racism. To begin moving toward becoming more equitable and just. Yet, even though it has still not quite happened, the hope is still alive. It has to be alive or else the dream will die. However, the dream sometimes feels like a nightmare of inaction and perpetual procrastination from white people.
These upon many have been my thoughts since the events of summer 2020. Through the election season and shifting political power, while witnessing a white supremacist coup attempt, and even with the coming and going of yet another MLK Day and Black History Month. The continued sentiment is that white America does not want to budge, and continues to make us wait for justice.
Martin Luther King Jr. knew that white America did not believe in equality, let alone equity and justice as a realistic outcome or potential future. And regardless of the efforts made during the Civil Rights Movement, white America made sure this outcome would be damn near impossible. The whitewashing of history and distorted storytelling has made sure that white America does not see the same reality that Black folks live and have known for generations. This indoctrination method among many other systemically racist processes/laws has kept the white moderate and white supremacy alive and well. Preventing change at every step.
“I have come to the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er 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 direct action;’ who paternalistically feels 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.’” - Letter From a Birmingham Jail (King, 1963)
This sounds way too familiar within our modern contexts of race in America: law and order politics and media rhetoric; painting the picture of Black Lives Matter protests as riots; saying human rights, as well as diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, are things that only liberal-minded people are concerned with; telling Black people they should be fine with where things are at; and that the methods of those fighting for equity and justice are too drastic. Let’s dive further.
“Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains? The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately, this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity. Overwhelmingly America is still struggling with irresolution and contradictions. It has been sincere and even ardent in welcoming some change. But too quickly apathy and disinterest rise to the surface when the next logical steps are to be taken.” - Where Do We Go From Here (King, 1967)
America has deluded itself. It still lives on top of a bed of violence, white saviorism, and American exceptionalism/nationalism. The strides that we have taken in Martin Luther King Jr.’s arc toward justice have been mostly performative, rather than restorative. Usually aiming to eradicate symbols of oppression rather than systems of oppression, and sometimes not even doing that. Almost always centering whiteness and white fragility at the core of the potential solutions, leading to no systemic changes. Even when a system is exposed, it just ends up taking a new form. This has become a vicious cycle that we see rekindled every time someone Black dies at the hands of the police. But shall we press on with more examples?
“Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of [people].... and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.” - Letter From a Birmingham Jail (King, 1963)
Progress has happened over the years, but it is not like the arc of justice is inevitable. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. said, it comes from effort and hard work. It is not easy. Yet there are always those who want to wait for the next best person, waiting for someone else to make the effort and put in the hard work. This social stagnation and procrastination by part of any white American results in the trauma, oppression, genocide, and death of Black Americans. White supremacy and even capitalism are upheld as parts of an American culture of greed and selfishness that places individuals over communities. Specifically, Black communities. Waiting has not just become a personal response, but an economic response as well. Therefore, to the eyes of white America, it seems like justice will never be well-timed...
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” - Letter From a Birmingham Jail (King, 1963)
Many people do not know these Martin Luther King Jr. quotes because he was assassinated, so now his message has been whitewashed and minimized down to “I have a dream,” equality, and non-violent protest.
I hope you can now see a little bit deeper into what he stood for. A national act of procrastination toward racial justice should never be the justification to avoid paying the debt owed to Black Americans. If the greatest apology is changed behavior, then America has perfected the art of the insincere apology. This work is not easy and it should not rest on the shoulders of Black Americans or any person of color, as we wait for a lending hand in making this country just and equitable. Change does not have to happen slowly, and I will not allow this perpetual gaslighting to let us believe that we should just continue waiting.
So I ask you, why are we still waiting?...
Because for those that are suffering, justice cannot wait.