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.