Freedom of the Whole Human Race

I am absolutely convinced that God is not interested merely in the freedom of black men and brown men and yellow men. But God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race, the creation of a society where all men will live together as brothers and every man will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality. – Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life”, 1960.

How true these words are! And how they have been forgotten in the past 50 years!

The spiritual and moral center of MLK’s vision is the idea inherent in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic: that true freedom of two people only comes from their mutual self-recognition of each other as equals. That when there is a master and a slave, the master is also thwarted in their humanity, and that the slave’s recognition of this fact, and the resulting sympathy towards the master, is crucial for the slave’s own growth to full self-consciousness.

Contrast this with a much more simple-minded, and morally less robust, image of overcoming the master-slave relation: where the slave becomes an equal to the master by getting what the master has. On this picture, equality is a matter simply of material redistribution: the master is seen to have all the things of a flourishing life, and the slave becomes an equal by getting those things as well. Call this the redistribution model of equality.

Not surprisingly, violence ends up playing a big role in the redistribution model. For surely the master resists giving up the inequality which he sees as natural, and so the inequality has to be taken from his hands, and the equality created by force.

King was concerned as well about the need for material redistribution, but his call for non-violence hinged on the crucial fact that material redistribution, though necessary, was not the foundation of an equal society. That, in fact, the foundation is not material, but moral and spiritual – having to do with a rise in consciousness in how inequality, in the deepest sense, is not the plight of some people as opposed to others, but the common plight of all people, masters as well as the slaves. That the struggle for equality requires seeing how the masters’, though materially rich, are psychologically and emotionally parched, even if they don’t know it, or feel it. That the slave who is able to see this limitation in the master, and see the master’s own psychological dependence on the slave for his (the master’s) own self-worth, is able to stand as tall as, or even taller than, the master, even in the midst of material inequality.

King believed that this awareness of the master’s psychological dependence ennobles the slave, and gives the slave the moral grounding and confidence to stand for change without violence. When the spell of the master’s self-sufficiency and intrinsic enlightenment is broken, the slave is released from the emotional bondage of inferiority, and sees himself immediately as an equal to the master – even through the vast difference in material conditions between them. Knowing that he is the equal of the master, the slave is then able to fight for change guided by his (the slave’s) own intrinsic enlightenment, the natural grace of God he has as a person, and he is able even to reach out to the master as a friend and a fellow companion to the path of justice, and together create the just society of material and spiritual equality.

The contrast between the redistribution model and the spiritual model is not the contrast between the styles of Malcom X and King. For Malcolm X as well the foundation of change was a spiritual transformation – the kind he went through in jail as he discovered Islam. Malcom X and MLK shared the sense that a moral and spiritual awareness of the intrinsic self-worth of the oppressed is the foundation of social change. They differed, where they did, on what form such spiritual awareness takes, and how to proceed from there.

Ironically, this spiritual dimension of the civil rights movement gave away in the following decades to a focus on the more straight-forwardly material redistribution model, as the debates focused on affirmative action, welfare and so on. What hasn’t been discussed as much in recent decades is what was lacking in white society itself prior to the civil rights movement, and therefore the ways in which whites themselves stand to gain and grow after the civil rights movement.

In the 70s, 80s, 90s, the images of white society in America is one of material prosperity – centered mainly on images of urban whites being financially successful. After the 60s, America fell back onto the idea, which King was resisting, of white society as the model of a flourishing society, only now supposedly even more clearly flourishing as the racist stain within it had been cleansed. The more this sense of the self-sufficiency of white society as a beacon of a good life become reentrenched, the more the spiritual dimension of the struggle for equality receded, to be replaced by the mere redistribution model.

This is most evident by the 90s in the excesses of Gangster rap. The focus is on making it financially, and without any pretense of moral standing. The message seems to be: you made it if you have a lot of cash, and you can buy all the things the rich whites have.

I don’t mean this as a specific indictment of the rappers. For the bigger picture is more interesting. In gangster rap, music and gang life come together. In the gangs a main business is drugs. So gangster rap is glamorizing that gang life and the people making the music, who are mostly black. But are the consumers of that music and the people buying the drugs themselves mostly black? No, it is mostly urban and sub-urban whites, especially the youth. And why are the white youth so into drugs? What is their pain and the cause of their disenchantment? Why in the 90s was their main hero a drug-addicted, disaffected singer who killed himself (Cobain)? Could it be that white culture, in itself, is not a self-sufficient, thriving model of a flourishing life, but has some inner pain and angst which is being bottled inside and not released?

From the perspective of King’s spiritual conception of equality, and how that is a project for the freedom of all people together, the pieces fit together. The duality of the black rapper glamourizing gang life and the white consumer of that music and the drugs is an example of the essentially inter-connected psychic lives of the former master and slave. There is the pain and the moral detriment of having been the master which the whites are not processing out loud. And relatedly, there doesn’t seem to be a black leader, like MLK, standing up and speaking with compassion for black and white, and brown, alike, suggesting that changes for material equality require a spiritual foundation of unity among all races as rising and falling together.

Against this background of the covering over in these last four decades of the spiritual dimension of the civil rights movement, Trump’s victory is a possible step forward. For it has made explicit what has been repressed for these fifty years, or even longer: white pain. Not just economic pain, but a deeper anxiety about what it means to be white and how whites can stand tall and hold their head up high, without guilt over slavery.

Liberals who dismiss any such white pain of Trump’s supporters as white tears are missing what MLK seemed to have understood clearly: that creating a society of equality is a matter not just of “the freedom of black men and brown men and yellow men… [but of] the freedom of the whole human race.” That ignoring white pain is not only inhuman, but counter-productive. That focusing only on a fight for material equality only reaffirms the deeper instincts of privilege in a defensive spirit. That recognizing our shared humanity can awaken new energies which can reshape the landscape and create new potentials for mutual understanding and peace, which in turn can lead to a more fluid rearrangement of material resources.

This is not to say one has to agree with Trump or his supporters. Trying to understand someone’s pain is not the same as agreeing with them. It is even compatible with standing up against them as needed. It is not a matter of what one does, but of how one does it, whatever it is.

Is this all too easy for me to say, someone who is not black? No doubt. But I am not speaking for, or even giving advice to, blacks. I am speaking as a brown man trying to figure out how I should live my life, and how I can strive for a better society. It is a testament to the vastness of MLK’s vision that reading him helps me understand my own potential.

3 thoughts on “Freedom of the Whole Human Race”

  1. “Could it be that white culture, in itself, is not a self-sufficient, thriving model of a flourishing life, but has some inner pain and angst which is being bottled inside and not released?”

    Related: http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2015/11/white-american-without-college-degree-are-seriously-depressed-these-days

    A bleaker & perhaps more fatalistic view — slavery (and maybe also genocide of the native americans) is the original sin of America, and the history of the nation is one long working out of the consequences of that original sin. Even immigrants to America — whether white or nonwhite — unfortunately and unwittingly become complicit in seeking to build prosperity on a system that was at one point rooted in such total injustice. It is to MLK’s great credit that he recognized the downward spiral, and was able to articulate a vision of a society beyond it.

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  2. The importance of relational equality over material equality makes sense. The difficulty is in achieving relational equality; as long as people believe in the importance of material equality, it is in the interests of the more (financially/materially) privileged to think of those who are not as “the other,” as losers or as less intelligent or less industrious. In other words, as David Livingstone Smith might say, denying relational equality is a solution to the psychological discomfort of being much better off (financially) than others while at the same time recognizing the humanity and equal dignity of those in worse circumstances. Say this is correct, and that the worse off (whether it be poor whites or African-Americans or another group) recognize this (through education) and their consciousness starts to shift, what steps could they take to change the attitudes of their fellow human beings who still continue to consider them as the other?

    Elizabeth Anderson has argued that integration is a way on addressing the problem when it comes to racial discrimination (i.e., pursuing policies to desegregate America’s neighborhoods). But how might the economically less-well-off rub shoulders with those worse well-off, especially given the push for privatization that is rampant around the world? As Sandel has noted, privatizing parks, gated communities, VIP seating at sporting events, etc. make it more difficult to build relational equality.

    So, raising consciousness of relational equality is challenging in (at least) two different ways: doing it with those less well-off while getting them to see past their challenging paycheck-to-paycheck existence, and doing it with those better off, even though the better-off are psychologically incentivized to deny relational equality. The civil rights movement under MLK did achieve something like this, but it’s a daunting project.

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    1. Great points. And it’s certainly a daunting project. But it seems more daunting, and perhaps impossible, if one thinks directly about America and how 300 million people can get along. Consider instead academic philosophy. It has very much all the same problems as the broader society does, even if it is in some ways better. In academia too there are issues of material equality and relational equality, neither of which have clear solutions.

      My main point is this: it is no help to look to society and bemoan its state and how unenlightened it is, when academic philosophy itself is riddled with the same issues. It is ultimately unhelpful to think that academia is better off than general society and what we need to do is simply to get general society to the level of academia. Instead, I think we should see what it would mean to even solve the issues in academia. My own guess is that then we will see there are deep theoretical issues which are unresolved about what equality itself means, relational and material, and fully accepting this theoretical uncertainty will enable looking to the issues in the broader society with more sympathy to all parties involved. That sense of theoretical uncertainty and our shared plight of trying to make sense of it all together can be a kind of healing glue and can foster the kind of “we are all in it together” attitude which MLK was trying to foster.

      As long as some group, like academics or christian fundamentalists or alt right or whoever, thinks that somehow they are more in the know about how to solve the issues, distrust will continue. The moral courage showed by MLK was the courage to step into the unknown with people on the other side, and the courage that taking that step doesn’t require greater education or material equality – it is a moral muscle that is exercised by letting down one’s shield and exhibiting hope that each of our problems are tied together at a deeper level by a shared condition.

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