Black Lives Matter messenger challenges young people at Middlebury College
MIDDLEBURY — Journalist and Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King told a standing-room-only Mead Chapel crowd on Tuesday evening that America is in a historic “dip” from which to recover will require a major commitment, especially from young people like the Middlebury College students who flocked to see him.
King, for the past year the New York Daily News senior justice writer and before then a journalist for the Daily Kos website, said racism is part of the nation’s DNA, but through work change can be made.
“Injustice will always exist, but it doesn’t have to be as bad as it is right now,” King said. “I’m asking you to make a life-long commitment to fight injustice. It’s not a wave. It’s not a fad. I want us to find our way out of whatever dip we find ourselves in.”
Sue Halpern, a college scholar in residence, introduced King, whose appearance came as part of Middlebury’s “Meet the Press” lecture series,” in which she said journalists are invited to “discuss their work and engage in dialogue” with the Middlebury community. The college’s Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity co-sponsored King’s talk.
Halpern described King as an “activist and social entrepreneur” as well as a journalist, and said she has been “struck by the clarity of his voice and his vision,” which is prominent in social media as well as in traditional sources.
Ultra-conservative media outlets have tried to discredit King, and he alluded to that effort in greeting the packed house.
“I’m moved because there is a sentiment that only a fringe part of America cares about justice, and this auditorium really says otherwise,” he said. “It’s pretty much like this everywhere I speak, and it’s not because of me as much as it is the time we’re in, where so many of us are so bothered and disturbed by so much injustice that we see, that people are looking for answers and insights and hope.”
‘SOMEWHERE IN A DIP’
King’s talk’s central thesis was based on his study of history, his major at Morehouse College and now his doctoral pursuit.
He cited 19th-century German historian Leopold von Ranke, the first to create a timeline of all known history, King said.
What von Ranke discovered was not what people believed then and many still believe, King said, that the quality of humanity has improved along with its technology.
Von Ranke learned, King said, that “sometimes people are getting better, and sometimes people are getting worse,” that cycles of relative peace and harmony alternate with those of discord and injustice.
“Sometimes people are really great, and sometimes there’s Donald Trump,” King said. “People are collaborative and artistic and peaceful and wonderful, and sometimes they aren’t. What he found was people commonly misinterpreted the steady improvement of technology with the steady improvement of humanity.”
And current times, King said, do not represent humanity at its best.
“We’re somewhere in a dip, in a decline,” he said.
As evidence, he offered pictures on display screen, including of a diagram of a slave ship, the back of a slave who had been whipped, skulls from the Rwandan genocide, and the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.
“If human beings are getting better, how do we explain the trans-Atlantic slave trade?” he said. “How do we explain this picture of the Holocaust?”
He pivoted to the United States, saying that police killed 102 “fully unarmed African-American men, women and children” last year.
King also noted the U.S. state and federal prison population remained steady at about 200,000 from 1925 to 1974, then grew to about 1.5 million now even with a lower crime rate. That is by far the largest per capita figure in the world at almost 700 per 100,000, compared to less than 100 per 100,000 for many countries with similar crime rates.
“If human beings in this country are steadily getting better, how do you explain a 1,000 per cent increase in America’s prison population?” King said.
That increase is intentional, King believes.
“What many of realize, painfully, is this system is not broken. It is functioning exactly the way it was designed and mastered to function,” he said.
King also showed videos of unprovoked police attacks on African-American youths at a pool party and in a classroom, and of unpunished and unprovoked assaults on African-Americans at Donald Trump rallies.
“If human beings are steadily getting better,” King asked, “how do we explain a young girl at a pool party being assaulted by police?”
King offered hope, including in the “huge ideas” of Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders.
“In the past, when we’ve been in a dip, we’ve always found our way out,” he said. “These dips can be short-term or long-term, depending on how hard we fight to get out. What I know, and this is good, we have barely scratched of the solutions to the problems we have.”
King also cited an HBO study of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest that discovered when sorted by age white Americans under the age 30 approved of Kaepernick’s actions “almost at the exact same rate as all African-Americans, something he called very hopeful.
“When you look at young people en masse, they look at injustice very differently than their elders,” he said. “As we find our way out of this, it’s not going to be me that leads us out. It’s going to be your efforts, your commitment.”
Q AND A
King also addressed a series of questions from Middlebury students.
Asked what’s next for Black Lives Matter, King said much has been done, but more is needed.
“I’ve come to really believe is that our organization to fix the problems we’re so very frustrated by is far outpaced by our outrage,” he said. “That’s not to say be less outraged, but the quality of our organization has to come up.”
Taking steps locally would be a good start, he said. King said, for example, there is little the federal government can do about the nation’s 20,000 local police departments, but working locally could create change.
“We’re talking about 20,000 smaller problems that can be attacked and faced problem by problem,” he said.
In response to another question, King defended the health of Black Lives Matter, noting that it was a decade after the Montgomery bus boycott before Congress passed the Civil Rights Act.
He said the movement needs “to pivot from awareness to change,” but has gotten off to a good start in creating “mass awareness.”
“If you put two years of this movement against two years of any other movement, we’ve achieved a lot,” he said. “We’re growing. We’re getting better.”
One African-American student wondered how to get some of his peers to understand and support minority issues — and to be more sensitive to their casual, most often unintentional, racism.
King answered by describing one of his failings, when in 2008 at the age of 30 he was serving as a pastor of an Atlanta, Ga., church. A woman he trusted asked if he knew that he interrupted women in church meetings, but not men, and offered a series of examples, telling him she knew, “It doesn’t represent your heart.” King realized she was right.
“(She was) saying you have an exaggerated view of how progressive you really are,” he said. “I realized I had a problem. I realized we all bring our own privilege and bias to the table. Even as students at Middlebury you are privileged compared to other people no matter what type of student you are, no matter what type of ethnicity, no matter what your financial aid package is.”
King added, “I imagined, wow, this must be how the average white folk feel who are told that they are acting a certain kind of way and they just don’t know.”
Then he said it was up to people with conscious or unconscious racist tendencies to look in the mirror.
“The hard work of addressing racism has been left to the wrong people,” King said. “It cannot and should not be left to African-Americans to fix racism. Because it is not African-Americans who are advancing it. You, white staff and students at the college have to own it and fix it yourselves.”