Monthly Archives: January 2014

‘The appalling silence of the good people’

“That they might have joy” column written for the Nodaway News Leader, January 2014

In December of 2012, our family traveled to Washington, DC, for Christmas. We had just been there that summer, but like most any trip, we didn’t get to see as many things as we would’ve liked.

We had visited the National Mall during the summer, but with our frantic pace to “see everything,” we somehow missed the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. So it was at the top of my list.


December 2012 trip to DC … at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial with our exchange student, Yuki, Hannah, Hunter and Larry.

It’s a relatively new memorial, dedicated in 2011, and contains the Mountain of Despair and the Stone of Hope that also has a sculpture of Dr. King. There are 14 of his quotes engraved on the wall surrounding it including a couple of my favorites:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.

Like much of what I saw in DC, the memorial moved me. But there, with the inspiring words of Dr. King surrounding his statue, I was also filled with hope. And also with anger.

Sharing this family road trip experience is timely, with King’s birthday on the 15th and the national observance on the 20th.

But the real reason is that the injustices he fought for and ultimately died for 50 years ago are still an issue today.

To think otherwise is ignorant. And to simply place the blame on the past is appalling.

This past month, Jamelle Bouie, writer for The Daily Beast, wrote: “Just because we don’t face the racism of the past doesn’t mean we’ve solved the problem. We haven’t.”

And in November, writing for The Nation, Mychal Denzel Smith said: “It sounds harsh, but I truly believe ‘Are things better?’ is one of the most useless questions in a discussion about racism. By reframing the conversation around how much progress has been made, we further the false narrative that racism is a problem that belongs to history. While we pat ourselves on the back for not being as horrible as we once were, we allow racism to become further entrenched in every aspect of American life.”

A 2013 Pew Research poll revealed there is still a “persistent belief that discrimination and unfairness remain a part of life for African Americans in this country” and 88 percent said they believed there was either a lot or some discrimination against blacks.

Just last week in The Guardian, Chris Arnade wrote: “We as a nation applaud ourselves for having moved beyond race. We find one or two self-made blacks or Hispanics who succeeded against terrible odds, and we elevate their stories to a higher position…. We tell their stories so we can forget about the others, the ones who couldn’t overcome the long odds, the ones born into neighborhoods locked down by the absurd war on drugs, the ones born with almost even odds that their fathers will at some point be in jail, the ones born into neighborhoods that few want to teach in, neighborhoods scarce of resources. Gone is the overt, violent and legal racism of my childhood. It has been replaced by a subtler version. It is a racism that is easier to ignore, easier to deny and consequently almost as dangerous.”

What’s more is that we think it’s only bad people treating others badly.

In March of last year, Ta-Nehisi Coats wrote in the New York Times: “In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist. The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion.”

We can no longer blame it on the evil generations of the past. It’s you and it’s me. It’s relatively good people being extraordinarily ignorant.

So stop. Stop being ignorant. Stop the knee-jerk reactions when we see something or someone and judge them. Recognize it and stop it. Let’s educate ourselves and move forward, beyond ignorance.

And then, have the courage to take a stand, to speak up during “times of challenge and controversy,” or even in times of quiet, when we’re alone with someone we know who is speaking words of hate, maybe not even consciously. Have the courage to no longer be silent.

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.

The appalling silence of the good people. Let’s not let that be us.