Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Why I Cannot Remain Silent: On the Necessity of Speaking Out in Face of Injustice

I could not remain silent.

When the rights of my African-American brothers and sisters were being assaulted during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, I had to speak out. I could not remain silent when many of my fellow citizens wished to overturn legislation affording black citizens civil rights, for the following reasons—reasons that have compelled me throughout my life to speak out against assaults on the rights of people of color:

▪ Silence in the face of injustice is complicity in injustice.

▪ Denial of the rights of others implies that the humanity of the other is less than my own. I cannot participate in the diminution of others’ humanity (either actively or passively, through tacit consent) without diminishing my own humanity.

▪ In a democratic society (and in a moral universe), we are all interconnected. To permit the humanity of others to be diminished and their rights to be removed—even or especially by the will of the majority—dissolves the bonds that are the only possible foundation on which a viable participatory democracy can be built.

▪ I am those I deem Other. It is only an accident of history that has assured that I live my life in another skin that that of the Other. If I permit the Other to be demeaned for any reason whatever, when my words and actions can prevent this, I cannot reasonably or morally expect to escape the treatment accorded the Other, if my own situation happens to change and I find myself the Other.

▪ The keystone of the system of legal segregation in the United States and of the cultural norms this system presupposed was violence. Underneath the entire system ran a constant threat of violence against any black person who got out of his or her “place.”

I saw actual violence with my own eyes, during the period leading up to and immediately after the Civil Rights act of 1964, as some white citizens of my community sought to keep black citizens in their “place.” I knew people who, having cleaned fish, would put the offal from the fish into brown paper sacks and throw these onto the roadsides in black neighborhoods, to remind their black neighbors of their inferior “place.” I knew white teens who would drive close to black children walking on roads in black neighborhoods, so that the children would be forced to jump into the ditches beside the road.

In my community during the 1960s, white teens driving through a black community threw a brick at an elderly black woman as she walked to church, hitting her in the head to remind her and the community of her “place.” In my final year of high school, a black teen was shot in cold blood while sitting on his porch, in a horrific act of violence that went unpunished. I knew those who shot this young man.

▪ If I permit violence—whether that violence is overt, as in hitting a woman in the head with a brick, or covert, as in creating laws to make an entire group of people second-class citizens—to rend the fabric of civil society, I cannot reasonably or morally expect at some point in my own life to be safeguarded from the violence that I have permitted to go unchecked in society at large.

Every system by which one group of human beings is isolated from other groups, targeted, and then put into an inferior “place,” presupposes violence as its foundation. Without covert and overt violence, it is impossible to maintain systems of inequality that depend on keeping a targeted group in its “place.” To live with such a system and not to challenge it is to immerse myself in violence.

▪ The violence of the racially segregated society in which I grew up, and the demeaning attitude towards an entire group of human beings it reflected and enacted, were rooted in the will of the majority and in longstanding religious belief. The people among whom I grew up took for granted that the bible not only legitimated, but prescribed, their subjugation of people of color. And very little in their culture challenged that religious presupposition, precisely because it was the presupposition of the majority.

▪ As someone who reads the scriptures to affirm the common, shared humanity of every human being, I had no choice except to speak out, because my most deeply held religious beliefs were undermined by the majority’s twisting of scriptural norms to justify oppression of a demeaned minority.

▪ In the final analysis, I do not have the right to call myself a moral human being, while remaining silent in the face of injustice that I can combat through words and deeds. And being able to call myself a moral human being is important to me.

Update: I've just watched video of the latest White House press conference. Asked about President Obama's reaction to today's California Supreme Court ruling, Press Secretary Mr. Gibbs replies, I have not talked to the president about it. I think that the issues involved are ones that you know where the president stands.

Do we know where the president stands? From where I stand, it seems he is still silent.