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The white role in the black struggle

Martin Luther King Jr.

Last week I wrote about a young community organizer named Dayvon Love. Mr. Love and his fellow activists in Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a grassroots advocacy organization he cofounded, may be the city's strongest proponents of black empowerment. Baltimore is majority African-American, but the heads of its most influential nonprofit organizations are usually white. Race still plays a role in which voices gain access to media outlets, policymakers and funding. So in LBS' view, if their goal is to help predominantly African-American communities, white nonprofit leaders must redress this power imbalance and do whatever they can to support a social policy agenda that is shaped and led by black people.

These ideas seem to have ignited a healthy debate. For example, more than 1,100 people used the Sun's website to share the article with others. All of the comments I've read and heard express agreement, disagreement, or a tenuous middle ground as the reader struggles with the implications of LBS' position. An online reader with the handle "platomd" used crude stereotypes and poor grammar to disagree: "[W]hen will Afro-Americans starting taking responsibility for their own actions," the writer asked. "High levels of violence, ignorance and indolence fuel their desire to blame other for the ineffectual lives they lead ... Get your acts together many of us do not want to support them anymore." Commenter "Bloomin Onion" insisted, "We should be living in a post-racial America now without black interests and white interests … [W]e are all Americans …" I agree. We are all Americans, but we can't address centuries of oppression by ignoring it.

Those were some of the dissenters. And Mr. Love says he heard from a number of people, most of them white, who supported what he said in the piece. But for me, the most interesting responses came from white people who were concerned about what LBS' approach would mean in practice.

It is important to remember that white people's role in anti-racist efforts has been a hotly debated topic for a long time. In 1966, Stokely Carmichael, who popularized the term "black power" as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, ridiculed "the thalidomide drug of integration," arguing that blacks needed to be in charge of their own, separate, institutions and that white liberals needed to work with their less-enlightened peers to disabuse them of their racism.

This was a direct repudiation of the bargain that older black leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. struck with white people. "The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community," King warned during the 1963 March on Washington, "must not lead us to a distrust of all white people. For many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny ... their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone." Whites who joined blacks in the struggle for equality would be commended and redeemed.

Against this historical backdrop, LBS' version of black empowerment is not very controversial at all. They are young integrationists who demand black leadership on issues that affect predominantly black communities. I think what causes some people trouble are the things they don't say.

Part of King's genius was his ability to turn the guilt whites felt over the ways in which they benefited from or even perpetuated racial inequalities into action. If they helped, they could take their place on the right side of history. LBS is forcing white liberals to deal with some very old and very real existential questions. What kinds of privileges do I have because of my race? How much have I earned? How much has been handed to me? How am I viewed within the communities I'm trying to help? But LBS poses these questions without giving explicit promises of racial harmony or white redemption.

I believe in a broad, explicitly inclusive vision of society and in what King referred to as the transformative power of love. This belief shapes the rhetorical tactics I choose to employ. But for many generations, whites have been able to use their proximity to black struggles as expressed in our protests and in our art to access something more enlightened, more compassionate, and more humane within themselves. So if LBS' stance, as moderate as it is, is helping people appreciate the precarious nature of this arrangement, then they're doing us all a favor.

Lionel Foster is a freelance writer from Baltimore. His column appears Fridays. Email: lionel@lionelfoster.com. Twitter: @LionelBMD.

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