From King’s Dream to Obama’s Hope

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On Thursday, this talk was delivered at Pacific Union College's weekly Colloquy.
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I am happy to let these remarks stand on their own, though I will respond to any question or comment anyone might care to make either here or offline on private email (or even an old fashioned, face-to-face communication). If I could make one change, based on the dozen or so different conversations I have had with people already, it would merely by to underline even more boldly than I thought I had that the critique that I offer at the end is not of white people, but of "Whiteness". White people are not bad, destructive or problematic; the idea of "Whiteness" is all three of those things. And most Americans - Asian, Latino, African or otherwise - participate in, and maintain the idea of Whiteness, and all of us share the responsibility to demolish it.

The following is the text I followed in giving the 15 minute talk. I should note this was in the form of personal story and reflection, rather than a formal paper or scholarly presentation, and much of the detail consists of 40 year old memories of an 8 year old child. This was followed by a conversation with Julie Lee, who asked what I thought were very good and fairly challenging questions (I had told her to just keep repeating how great my talk was, but she decided to take a more critical route). I do not have a transcript from that 10-15 minute exchange.

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• I was asked to talk about the relationship between MLK Day and the election of Barack Obama to be President of the United States on November 4, 2008. I am happy to do that, as long we understand that you could ask 100 different Americans to talk about the road from King to Obama, and you would get 100 different stories. This one just happens to be mine.

• It is not possible to think of Obama’s victory last November without also thinking of MLK and his Dream; even more so since his inauguration next Tuesday happens to fall on the day after MLK Day, and Obama will take the Oath of office on the other end of the Washington Mall where Dr. King gave his famous speech

• I am going to Washington for the inauguration, and I’m taking my family. I don’t have tickets, we don’t know how to dress in cold weather, but we are going to stand in the mall with several millions of our fellow citizens watching the ceremony on big screens when we certainly would be able to see more and hear better from the warm comfort of our living room – because I just have to be there. Too much has happened to get us to this moment, too many people have sacrificed too much, for me not to be a witness.

• For me, the key to understanding the 40 year journey through the wilderness from the murder of Dr. King on April 4, 1968 to the election of Barak Obama on November 4 2008, lies with my father and with my mother, David and Sheila Fulton. They were active in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s – both were officers in the Southern California branch of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) – an organization that worked closely with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SLCL) whose leader was the young Baptist Minister Martin Luther King.

• My parents had been trained by King’s associates at SLCL in non-violent resistance tactics, and in turn they trained hundreds of local activists before heading out to protests and picket lines and marches that they organized throughout the Los Angeles area.

• The day King was murdered (April 4, 1968) was something of a nightmare in my house. Mother crying, dozens of adults, some I knew, many strangers, coming in and out of the house, talking in loud, and then hushed voices. Even then they were organizing, not just mourning – there was intense worry that there would be riots in southern California that night and the next (only 3 years after the Watts Riots of 1965).

• About half of the people who came by my house argued that there should be riots – they said that we had tried it Martin’s way (non-violence) and all it got was him killed – now it was time for violence. My father (an elder at our small SDA church) was a leader of the faction that argued that even, and especially, now that Martin had been killed we had to remain true to his principles of non-violence. He would say over and over that day and in the days to come – “They can kill the dreamer, but they can’t kill the dream”. Gradually he and others on his side won over the more militant groups, and instead of a riot that night in Pacoima, they organized meetings in high school auditoriums and church sanctuaries. My mother and father took my sister and I with them to 3 or 4 of these meetings that night, and at each one they would take to the podium and cry with the folk who had gathered, express their rage at the murder, and then repeat over and over the importance of staying true to Martin’s non-violence principles. At one of the meetings a couple of grown-ups in black leather jackets (I now realize they were in their mid 20’s, but at the time they seemed old to me) standing in the back of the room asked me if “Dave” was my father. I was proud of what he was doing and smiled and said yes – but when I met their eyes I saw that they were not complimenting my dad. One of them said, with an anger and hatred that buckled my knees, “If it weren’t for your father, we would be burning this city down tonight. We won’t do it because he asked us not to – but he’s wrong, and he is going to be sorry. White people don’t understand nothing but killing”.

• There was no riot in Pacoima that night, nor any of the other nights for the next week, though there were in 100 other cities across the US. I think my father, along with a number of his fellow organizers, prevented that. But what I remember most is that the next night my father, who was an artificial kidney patient, and needed to receive dialysis treatments for 12 hours at a time three days a week or he would die, was stopped at a roadblock just outside the limits of Pacoima by police who were not letting black men through because they thought they were too dangerous. We turned around and went back home and my mother got the Chief of Staff at USC County Medical Center on the phone, explained the situation, and he got in his car and drove an hour to our house with a letter documenting that my father’s need to leave Pacoima was a matter of life or death, which got him through the roadblock. For the rest of her life my mother made sure that my father had a version of that letter in the glove compartment of his car at all times.

• I remember something else too from those days. I remember that when I later told my father what those young men in black leather jackets had said, he shook his head sadly and told me that the thing to learn from that was that it wasn’t only white people who were prisoners of hate. I didn’t know what he meant, but gradually I came to understand that while those men listened to my father because he had a certain authority in the community from his years of leadership, they did not trust my father, because his wife was white.

• It took me a while to figure this out, because we did not think of my mother as white, and she did not think of herself as white. It wasn’t that she pretended to be black – it was that she had stopped identifying as white, and instead identified herself with her ethnic background, which was Jewish. When people used to ask me if I was “mixed” I would say yes, and they would often say “black and white”? and I would say “No, Black and Jewish”.

• What I learned from my mother then I have come to realize now is crucial. Many Americans are tired of bumping up against race, of being divided by race, and want to move beyond it. But the mistake that they have traditionally made is in assuming that moving beyond race means that non-white people need to let go of their racial identity and essentially act like “regular people” – by which they mostly mean, like white people. The truth – and it is a hard truth to hear, one that I know will be offensive the first 10 or 20 times some people hear it, is that in order to get beyond race, it is white people who need to let go of their racial identity. It is Whiteness, not Blackness, or Latinoness, or Asianness, that is the real problem.

• To claim a white racial identity is to lay claim to the privilege of disproportionate power, rights, access and wealth. Whiteness is what Americans have used since the 17th century to justify and legitimate treating some humans as less than human, as other than human. How can we own and enslave some people? How can steal their land, deprive them of life and liberty? How can we exploit their labor, deny them property rights or equal protection under the law or full participation in our elections, economy and society? Because they are Them, they are Other, they are not White, meaning they are less than fully human.

• Whiteness is the problem – Whiteness is the claim, whether one is conscious of making it or not – that one deserves to be treated as fully human, while so many others do not.

• What the election of Barak Obama demonstrates once and for all is the bankruptcy of this claim. It is now clear and obvious that you do not have to be white to exercise power in this country.

• What we need now is for more and more Americans to break the habit of calling themselves white. This is not to say that they should wallow in guilt or be ashamed of who they are. Rather it is an opportunity for people to re-connect with their history and family traditions, while at the same time endorsing the most basic of all truths – there is only one human race, and we all are equal members of it.

• So, I am going to Washington DC this weekend, and I will stand in the cold with the masses and probably not see or hear – but I will be there. I will be there for my father and my mother, who are both dead, and cannot be there except through me. My African-American father David, who was one of those who kept the peace, and the dream, and the hope for so long during those long years in the Wilderness. My Jewish mother Sheila, who early on knew and taught and lived that Whiteness was an oppressive ideology of hate and hierarchy that one can choose to escape from, into an identity that offers both pride and celebration of ethnic roots and traditions, and common ground for all members of the human family.

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