Now Faith is the Substance of Things Hoped For
An MLK Day Reflection
It has become en vogue to spend MLK Day uplifting Dr. King’s radical legacy in order to combat the colorblind, “we are the world” caricature of unity that makes the rounds at this time every year. That brand of unity is rightly criticized for failing to adhere to any particular principles and being manipulated by liberals and conservatives alike to justify whatever they need it to justify at the time. The venerated radicalism levied in response typically involves identifying Dr. King as an unabashed socialist who far exceeded his mainstream feel-good depiction by presciently recognizing the interconnectedness of racism, capitalism, and imperialism. This radicalism does not, however, include his critique of antiblackness, which is thought to be obvious and self-explanatory given Dr. King’s signature antiracism. But antiblackness is something that even the most intersectional of thinkers fail to take seriously. Beyond a psychological investment in the notion that one color of people is superior to another, antiblackness is, more precisely, the recognition that antiblack antagonism structures the social fabric regardless of any one’s personal disposition, attitudes, or psychology. It is its own system of ownership, accumulation, markets, and rights recognition in which black people remain in bondage. Antiblackness isn’t consequential because of how it interacts with other systems (e.g. because it causes poverty or other forms of inequality), antiblackness is consequential because it is a system in and of itself. It is blackness in particular, not racism in general, that is a fundamental mechanism of organization and relation for the entire world.
While the Letter from a Birmingham Jail is circulated to chastise the fecklessness of today’s white Democrats, Dr. King was actually gesturing toward the inability of even antiracist “allies” to be in true solidarity with black people in their extreme attempts to end black suffering. And that alienation of black people persists. As a case in point, an apartment building for which Ebenezer Baptist Church, famously pastored by Dr. King in the past and Senator Raphael Warnock in the present, maintains 99% ownership has moved to evict disadvantaged residents, even if they’re just a few days short on rent. The conservative Washington Free Beacon (a publication with its own antiblack agenda, to be sure) reported on the experience of Columbia Tower resident Philip White, a 69-year-old African American man who received his first eviction notice in September 2021 for $179 in past-due rent. The eviction attempt was dropped after he paid the $179, plus an additional $325 in fees. He then received another eviction notice in September 2022 for failure to meet a $192 rent payment. "They treat me like a piece of shit. They're not compassionate at all," White said. Confronting antiblackness means questioning why even an apartment building 99% owned by a black church pastored by the past and present patron saints of racial justice and inclusive democracy, and developed with the designated purpose of being a home for the disadvantaged, does nothing to stop its business partner (a 1% owner) from filing eviction lawsuits against its black residents.
I’m thinking through the second section of Calvin Warren’s “Black Nihilism and the Politics of Hope.” He articulates that hope as a political concept is barren because, as briefly summarized in my last essay, it’s bound up in the endless pursuit of impossible objects like redress, equality, freedom, and justice. The reason these political objects are impossible is because attaining them really isn’t even on the table. “Progress,” “betterment,” and “more perfect” are the only things really on table because the unspoken agreement is that the annihilation of subjugation is unrealistic. The only promise is bringing people incrementally closer to “progress,” “betterment,” and “more perfect” in perpetuity. The promise has been recast as unending pursuit, despair has been recast as possibility, struggle has been recast triumph, and lack has been recast as proximity to victory. Political hope, as opposed to spiritual hope, is a highly effective rhetorical device designed to defang radical discourse and eliminate political organization aimed at combatting more deep seated forms of precarity caused by predatory structures.
My point is that MLK’s radical legacy has become about everything but rooting out antiblackness. It has even become about antiracism as a way to refuse becoming about antiblackness. If faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen, my faith is in what will happen when we start to make the stakes of black struggle plain and reject whitewashing in all of its forms.
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