On this MLK Day most Whites are still only scratching the surface of racism


The Anti-racism Daily newsletter that pops into my inbox every morning around 3am provided excerpts from and links to five of Dr. King’s speeches:

Letters from a Birmingham Jail (April 16, 1963)
Beyond Vietnam (April 4, 1967)
The Role of the Behavioral Scientist in the Civil Rights Movement (September 1, 1967)
The Other America (March 14, 1968)
I’ve Been to the Mountaintop (April 3, 1968)

Being especially invested in what he had to say to behavioral scientists since I am one, I read the one he delivered as the keynote at the 1967 annual American Psychological Association. In it, he touches on everything from the ways that Blacks, but even more so, Whites, need the social sciences to understand themselves to urban riots to the Vietnam War to unemployment, weaving all the bits together into a compelling, coherent, and ultimately devastating whole. I think where he really shines, though, is right out of the gate when he argues:

“White America needs to understand that it is poisoned to its soul by racism and the understanding needs to be carefully documented and consequently more difficult to reject. The present crisis arises because although it is historically imperative that our society take the next step to equality, we find ourselves psychologically and socially imprisoned. All too many white Americans are horrified not with conditions of Negro life but with the product of these conditions-the Negro himself.”

He said this in 1967 and I think it’s still the case in 2021 – White America’s soul is poisoned by racism. I really don’t think we’ve grappled sufficiently with this reality. I really don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface of this reality. Whites are still psychologically and socially imprisoned by our prejudices and our unexamined biases (implicit and explicit) and bigotry. Some of us have been shaken some more awake, finally, by the footage of Derek Chauvin pressing his knee into George Floyd’s neck, pinning him to the asphalt for nearly 9 minutes, killing him. But I think most of us, most of the time (me included) are still mostly sleep walking when it comes to racism.

And here, I’m actually focused on the White people among us who want to wake up, who want to be antiracists. Some of us are doing the studying, the reading, the listening, the critical thinking that might, maybe help us see more clearly, to stop White-washing everything, to take risks that are in service of equity and equality. A few of us are doing this work in sustained ways, but more of us (me included) are doing it in fits and starts, picking it up when we’re jolted into remembering how awful things still are, only to let a hundred other things overtake us until something new jolts us.

Then there are those who are so defended, who are so deeply in denial that they gin up souped-up revisionist a-historical fantasies like your idiotic “1776 Project.” Please. What a load of horseshit. I’m sure they’ll be many a school district across the country that’ll grab onto it like it’s one of those bright orange (of course) life-rings that drowning swimmers are beyond grateful to have tossed in front of them. If nothing else, you’ve ripped down several veils and shown us all that White supremacy and White Nationalism is alive and kicking – hard.

But you know what, I think there will be way more school districts that’ll use the 1619 Project. There are way more educators across the country who recognize that it’s high time we start unpacking our poisonous, racist history and start telling kids, and adults, the whole truth. And I bet there ‘ll be some teachers in some schools who will buck the “1776 (Propaganda) Project,” even if it’s the required material, and will risk the wrath of the community to use the 1619 Project.

So there’s hope on this MLK Day 2021 that maybe despite ourselves, some of us are lurching ungracefully towards the reckoning with race we all so desperately need even as the FBI is trying to figure out how to stop Proud Boys and QAnon sickos from slipping into the Inauguration to do whatever horrible, fundamentally racist, fascist things they think you want them to do (and no doubt actually do want them to do).

May we all be safe from our worst instincts.
May we be willing to stay engaged with antiracism work.
May we stay strong and committed.
May we accept that most Whites see only the tip of the iceberg of systemic racism.

Sincerely, T
racy Simpson

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