Firefighting on MLK Day

1. King’s Prescience

We lost Dr. King in Tennessee. He was in Memphis to lead a protest on behalf of sanitation workers who suffered from unconscionably poor working conditions and equally disturbing wages. Many MLK academic historians note the significant emphasis King began to place on economic justice in the years before his untimely death. However, few popular accounts of King’s contributions include this important detail about his life and work. The effect of this elision is that the general public receives a watered-down picture of MLK; one that is routinely harnessed to the liberal multicultural politics that helped elect Barack Obama, and now aids the misleading notion that “we” have “overcome” our collective ailments.

In his reflections on working toward peace, actor and peace activist Harry Belafonte recounted a conversation he had with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., shortly before King was assassinated. King told Belafonte he was disturbed by a realization he had about the long, hard fight for integration: “We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win,” King said. “But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.”*

Belafonte was “taken aback,” by King’s admission and visible discontent. The project of integration did not, King argued, fully address the need to remedy the injustice of economic exploitation – an injustice intrinsic to capitalism and dispersed across racial and ethnic groups. “I’m afraid that even as we integrate,” King said, “we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears at the soul of this nation.”

Though Belafonte agrees with King’s insight, though we face the greatest economic crisis in recent history, and though we continue to witness social unrest and egregious acts of violence against the poor, the disenfranchised, the stateless, and the homeless, Belafonte remains optimistic about the possibility of change.

He writes: “Deep in my soul, I know there are more Rosa Parks, more Dr. Kings, and more Ella Bakers ready to emerge. Perhaps we are the firefighters who can save the burning house. Martin would have embraced such a thought.”

2. On Inauguration Eve

Belafonte’s optimism and belief in the possibility of change is similar to, but not identical with, the brand of hope and change articulated by the Obama team. Contrary to popular opinion, the election of Barack Obama does not fully realize Dr. King’s dream. Though we bear witness to a most miraculous event tomorrow, when considering the “change” Obama’s election signifies, we’d all do well to see it as a symptomatic shift, rather than an eradication of the root illness Dr. King sought to address by the end of his career.

Here’s why:

Obama’s presidency can, and should, be regarded as the apotheosis of integration/multicultural politics in the United States. And for the majority of Americans, reaching this multicultural consensus is a very good thing.** Yet, we must be aware that adding more people of color and women to positions of power, both in the U.S. and abroad, does not rewrite the foundational assumptions and beliefs informing the global socio-political and institutional matrix that determines the quality of our lives. Even with a bright and dashing new president before us, it is fair to say that the house is still on fire.

Yes, tomorrow’s inauguration of the first African-American president certainly marks a shift in U.S. racial politics, but it does not mark the end, nor does it herald a substantive change, in the way racism is entangled with capitalist exploitation. Racism, which, I should add, is a deeply gendered affair, continues to aid capitalism in the creation of exploitable labor groups and usurpable, instrumentalized land.***

While I suspect Obama knows the house is still on fire, I’m less convinced that his method of dealing with the flaming house (which should be seen as the entire world, not just the U.S.) will move us in the direction of taming the blaze. To be frank, integration doesn’t change the world if it means we now have a black guy injecting massive amounts of capital into a gendered and racialized economic system instead of a white guy. Such a response to the implosion of an ethically vacuous (think Madoff, Dreier, Enron, et al.) and systemically unfair mode of organizing and distributing resources deals with symptoms, not root causes. It allows us to hobble on a bit longer on an ultimately unsustainable path. They’ve change the players instead of the game.

Consider this: one of the distinctive characteristics of our economic system is its demand that we all “compete” on the market to secure and accumulate the most basic of human needs. (I’m resisting the urge to address the absurdity of individual ownership as such, i.e.: private property.) Now, one might say that competition is the province of sellers, not consumers like you and I, but Marx reminds us that the consumer/worker is also for sale, perhaps now more so than ever. Each day we sell our labor in exchange for cash and “benefits,” benefits that are better understood as withheld birthrights erroneously routed through the workplace. As company after company lays off more and more workers (my job just sent 6 home last week) the buyers of labor can drive down wages because we are all competing for work. Meanwhile, Washington prepares for phase three of its “bailout” plan in order to keep this system running, so some of us may return to the market for further exploitation at a later date – should we last that long.

The competition-accumulation dyad is simply a bad combination that brings out the worst in people while actively devaluing the qualities we ought to be cultivating: mutuality, compassion, generosity, kindness, forgiveness and patience, in short, LOVE. In my first blog post, “Say When,” I had this to say about capitalist ideology:

As I sail through my entrepreneurship for dummies class, I’m learning that improving my bottom line is the goal, with a dash of social responsibility thrown in for good measure. But, I can’t help thinking we might wanna adjust the profit-accumulation model that leads businesses to desire ever-expanding coffers. Can we learn to have a wealth accumulation cap? You know, like when a friend pours you a glass of wine and says, “tell me when,” and you wait, watch the glass fill up with your favorite vino, all the while knowing that filling up to the brim is in bad form because others wanna taste too, so at the half way mark you say, “when!” Can we learn to say “when” before buying that second house, before buying that third car, before the mind-boggling vacation in the Maldives Islands? Can we learn to associate bling-bling excess with “bad form”? Surely it’s in bad taste to dine out for 200 bucks while others massage a grumbling belly and the family down the street is kicked out of their foreclosed on house, right?

As we celebrate the alleged demise of racism, capitalist ideology continues to propose an “individual” who is independent of everyone with whom he or she interacts. Such individuals are thought to have discreet and substantial identities that are mutually exclusive, rather than interdependent and contingent upon the actions of others. This conceptual paradigm lands us in the arena of individual rights, rather than collective responsibility, such that one can argue that their “right” to liberty enables them to accumulate capital irrespective of the human and environmental cost of such accumulation. (It’s a free country, right? WTF?) It is such a worldview that enables the “It’s not personal, it’s just business” saying to make any damn sense. Collective responsibility on the other hand, recognizes that what I do here has implications not only for other people near and far, but also for the unborn millions in generations to come. Yet, this idea of the self-interested, individuated human sits at the core (as in it’s one of the roots) of the contemporary global economic system/crisis everyone is struggling to save/solve. Only when we begin to see the interconnectedness between self and other, when we see that “my interest” is ultimately the same as “your interest,” will we begin to move toward collective responsibility, toward the liberating power of love, and indeed toward putting out the fire ravaging our home.

3. We, the Firefighters of Planet Earth

I say all of this not to detract or denigrate Obama’s brilliance or the blessed journey that is his life. Rather I make, what I suspect is a somewhat unpopular argument, in the spirit of King’s great insight about the nature of our contemporary illness, and to point out where the easy line drawn between King and Obama actually breaks down. It seems to me that paying homage to Dr. King necessitates maintaining fidelity to his legacy. The kind of quick and dirty historiography for which popular culture is notorious offers us a version of King that serves the interests of the status quo, and lends itself well to the celebration of Obama’s presidency. This is all fine and good if you don’t mind living among embers and billowing smoke that often erupts into scorching flames. If however, you prefer a less volatile life, then we ought to insist upon popularizing the version of Dr. King who was a peaceful radical, implicitly calling forth the firefighters of the next generation.


*Many thanks to my friend Bea for passing on the Belafonte passage. We truly are “we” – there is no I, no Self. The insights articulated in this blog are impossible without the input of others. If you’re interested in reading the rest of Belafonte’s notes, you can find them here:

**I find it difficult to communicate both the relief I feel over the decreasing occurrence of egregious  and monstrous acts of racially motivated violence, and the impatience I feel with broad based acceptance of the idea that multiculturalism in the U.S. solves the problem of race. Yes, we rarely see folks hanging from trees these days, but systemic and institutionalized violence persist in, perhaps, more atrocious ways: rampant poverty and mass negligence, deliberate under-education, incarceration, etc.

***By “racism” I refer to the bigotry, physical and epistemic violence accompanying the hierarchical distribution of the idea of “racial difference.” When I say “racism is a deeply gendered affair,” I mean that the metaphorics of racial difference map “gender differences” onto the idea of race. It would take too long to explain how this works, but it is very important for understanding why we’re not in the era of radical change. This blog requires an understanding of “racial difference” as a historical idea, rather than an objective Truth. My theory of race draws upon the work of philosopher Sylvia Wynter and Marxist historian Cedric Robinson, among others, and it theorizes Race as a bio-economic idea of human being, which was the idea of difference subtending the expansion of European monarchies-cum-nation-states in the early modern period. As a bio-economic theory of what it means to be human, racial thinking by the nineteenth century conceived of the Human as a pan-optic, evolving organism in various phases of evolution. The most evolved human was presumed to be capable of seeing its earlier incarnations in “primitive” others (hence, “pan-optic”), and simultaneously responsible for “helping” such groups “develop,” and enter the “modern, civilized” world. And, insofar as the human could reason, the human was imagined to be a self-possessing entity. The discourse of rationality therefore served to draw boundaries around the coveted space of self-possesion, and the “inalienable rights” that came along with ownership of the self. “Primitive accumulation” of capital thus turns on the fabrication of some groups of people as irrational, unable to tend to their own affairs, and so on. Of course, the only normal, rational humans were conveniently, also the authorial subjects of the discourse on human being and racial difference. This model of human being thus operated by a princple of inclusion within the “human family,” while exploiting people according to where one fell along the evolutionary line. Solving racism then, cannot to be solved by way of multiculturalism, which relies upon the “make-believe” racial categories of yore and demands being regarded as a human LIKE the one who initially oppressed and excluded. Rather, our way out of our contemporary morrass comes by decolonizing what it means to be human as such.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s