The following commentary is one in a series from KCET and Link TV writers and contributors reflecting on how the incoming president will shape, change, and redefine the future of California.
I didn’t know just how much my world was defined by Martin Luther King, until now. I was a child in, not of, the 1960s. But more than any other figure, Martin Luther King shaped how I saw the country and what I expected from it. That hardly means I expected racial enlightenment and justice dispensed in neat increments each decade, the great moral arc of the universe bending in the right direction all the time. King himself didn’t expect that; he knew what he was up against. What I did expect, or what I had assumed, was that the country had crossed a kind of threshold in the sixties to which it would more or less never return. It would never return to the social norm of white supremacy that had sanctioned Jim Crow laws. It would never accept elected officials who openly or even casually espoused bigotry and intolerance. Thanks to King, the country had largely, if grudgingly, accepted its own original mission of striving toward a more just and democratic union as the political, legal and spiritual foundation going forward. Of course that mission would be opposed, as people would have very different ideas about how to implement it. But the moral path had been clarified and set. Whatever crises developed from that point on, we would always be required to wrestle publicly with our conscience, to reflexively ask ourselves, what would King say?
In 2017, the path has almost disappeared from view. It’s disorienting for me, like having vertigo.
In 2017, the path has almost disappeared from view. It’s disorienting for me, like having vertigo. For the first time in my life, I don’t know how to see the country or what to expect of it. It’s hard to accept the fact that many people, notably Trump voters, either reject the King framework as shopworn or irrelevant. They have completely twisted King’s vision into the belief that a fair and just America is actually one that privileges whites and the wealthy, that embraces bigotry and separatism as a triumph of free speech and the free market, and sees these things as an expression of fundamental Americanism. This is not new. But what is new and so disorienting to me is the sense that we’re moving back through the threshold I assumed we’d left behind. The name-calling and lashing out and instinct to humiliate that I dismissed as idiosyncrasies of Donald Trump, I’ve been forced to recognize on the eve of his swearing in as president, as symptoms of a larger sickness, or simply a state of mind of a big part of the American electorate. This state of mind is not marginal, as I assumed—hoped—it would always remain. It is front and center, in the seat of power, and the great moral question now is how those of us dismayed by the turn of events will respond. Protesting and taking a stand won’t be enough. We have to do nothing less than confront a paradox: How to oppose what’s happening in our country and embrace its capacity for greatness, or at least self-correction? How to reject America in its current formation and believe that this same America will evolve in the direction of good?
One thing Baldwin warned us all against was being in denial about who we were as a country.
The encouraging news is that we have confronted the paradox before. Black people have had great experience with it—in any given decade we were fighting against the country that oppressed us and fighting for inclusion with equal vigor. We know how to live the dispiriting reality of racial hostility on a daily basis and hope for change anyway, always fight for it. That’s how the 60s happened, that’s how all of us crossed a threshold that for hundreds of years looked impossible to reach. We did reach it.
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We will reach more thresholds, and cross them too. That optimism is part of American exceptionalism, an idea I normally find oppressive, but that I’m clinging to these days. I’m in good company. King’s close ally and literary counterpart in the 60s, James Baldwin, was a fierce critic of racism, which he believed infected all of us. But even at his most critical and seemingly hopeless period, he believed in American possibility. He believed in racism’s other side, love. He believed because as an American, he claimed the right to believe. He saw himself as exceptional as the next guy, entitled to big ideas and big expectations, and in that sense he lived the equality he wanted to see. King did, too. Now it’s my turn to do it. I don’t feel prepared, but I don’t have a choice.
One thing Baldwin warned us all against was being in denial about who we were as a country. Papering over the ugliest meaning of our history, maintaining our innocence as fair and well-intentioned people, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. That kind of denial would be our death, he said. Baldwin would have been horrified about the advent of Trump, but he would likely have said that at least now we can no longer maintain our innocence about who we are. This is progress that would not have happened without profound crisis. That the crisis was precipitated by a black president who strove so hard to bring everyone to the table, King-style, and instead brought racial acrimony to the surface and then to power, is an irony that would not have been lost on King himself. But he would have not have been surprised. Nor would he have stopped dreaming.
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