I am writing this on January 15, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. This coming weekend, there will be myriad events celebrating Dr. King’s work, his legacy, and his life. Many of us who identify as white and consider ourselves progressives will head downtown to celebrate, to trot out our liberal or progressive credentials, and then go back into hiding for another year believing that, when it comes to the real work of racial justice, we have done our part.
In December 2013, Rev. Alex Gee wrote an autobiographical piece for the Capital Times entitled “Justified Anger.” His article scratched the surface of one man’s experience in Madison, an experience that is representative of thousands of men and women in Dane County. His experience is similar to that of 80 percent of the men and women with whom we work at Madison Urban Ministry (MUM) who are returning from prison. Dane County has the worst racial disparity rate in incarceration in the state of Wisconsin, which is among the worst in the United States. In the Race to Equity Report of the Wisconsin Council of Children and Families, the disturbing realities of life in Dane County are clearly laid out. Here is your challenge: if you have not read either the Race to Equity Report or Rev. Gee’s article, read them now.
The Capital Times is hoping to create a greater dialogue. They are making column space available to people and hope that people will write letters to the editor. We can help make that happen by participating in community meetings and conversations, by recognizing that there is a real urgency here for all of us to respond to the disparities, and we who identify as white have some internal work to do, too.
Those of us who are white cannot begin to understand the depths and effects of systemic racism in our community until those of us who are white understand the depths and effects of systemic white privilege. In a Capital Times op-ed, School Board member Ed Hughes summed it up well when he suggested that if you aren’t buying the idea of white privilege, think about the disparities in housing, employment, poverty, graduation rates, and incarceration rates and then think about how many white Madison residents described the most pressing social justice issue of 2013 as the right to sing in the Capital without a permit. How can anyone look at the findings of the Race to Equity Report and not see that systemic racism continues to be the most pressing social justice issue facing Dane County? Ask the parents of a black child in the Madison schools if singing without a permit trumps the 50/50 chance that their child will not graduate from high school.
In his article, Rev. Gee described an interaction with a woman at a meeting. Rev. Gee had given a speech, and afterward the woman complimented him on not being an angry black man. The exchange reminded me of something Dr. King wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail: “…I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s greatest stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
In Madison, perhaps it is not the white moderate but the white liberal, the white progressive who is more comfortable with the “negative peace” Dr. King describes, the person who would rather not have the uncomfortable conversations about race and privilege. But for the sake of justice we must have those uncomfortable conversations, and we must be willing to hear, see, and feel the anger of our brothers and sisters who are regularly denied justice in our community.
I would like to suggest a place to start: the 15th White Privilege Conference, March 24-29 here in Madison. The agency I work for, MUM, is a conference co-host. Now, some of you may even be uncomfortable with the name—we’ve had calls at our office suggesting that it be changed, that it’s too “in your face.”
Since its inception in 1999, Dr. Eddie Moore Jr., founder of the conference, has persisted beyond misperceptions of the White Privilege Conference’s (WPC) name to present a transformational experience based on three tenets: understanding, connecting, and respecting. The WPC has become a venue for fostering difficult and critical dialogues around white privilege, diversity, multicultural education and leadership, social and economic justice, and intersecting systems of privilege and oppression. It won’t be easy, it won’t be comfortable, but if you are open to the tenets of the conference it will be transformational. I hope to see you there.
Linda Ketchum is the Executive Director of Madison-Area Urban Ministry.