In the summer of 1963, the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton wrote a series of “Letters to a White Liberal.” Later published in his book Seeds of Destruction, Merton’s critique remains unnervingly prescient over fifty years later. Though the language is outdated and sexist, the insight remains.
“The Negro finally gets tired of this treatment and becomes quite rightly convinced that the only way he is ever going to get his rights is by fighting for them himself. But we deplore his demonstrations, we urge him to go slow, we warn him against the consequences of violence (when, at least so far, most of the organized violence has been on our side and not on his). At the same time we secretly desire violence, and even in some cases provoke it, in the hope that the whole Negro movement for freedom can be repressed by force.”
Two years later, the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles burned. The next summer, there were 159 urban uprisings or anti-black riots in the United States. After Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, a dozen cities burned. Black folks were fed up; whites called in the army and voted in Nixon.
Merton refused the title of prophet, he said he was only reading King, James Baldwin, and Malcolm X, only watching as uprisings and KKK bombings spread across the country. He did not doubt that cities would burn, his question was much simpler: Did white people have the moral courage to hear black rage? When push came to shove, would white people take real risks for the sake of real change?
The question has only become hotter with time. The fire of black and brown anger didn’t die after the 60s. Attica, 1971. Miami, 1980. Los Angeles, 1992. Cincinnati, 2001. Ferguson, 2014. Baltimore, 2015.
As we approach Memorial Day and the start of summer, I’m wondering, Which city will burn this summer?
Maybe it will be Cleveland, where the police kill children by “human error,” where this summer the Republicans will crown Donald Trump their candidate as he continues to advocate for a ban on Muslims entering the country and rhetorically backs vigilante attacks on immigrants of color.
Maybe it will be here in Philly, where its getting harder for black and brown communities to hold on to their homes, where the pro-incarceration Democratic Party and accompanying riot police will shut down the city in July, where police assault kids in our schools, where we’re down to a gun shooting every six hours, where the federal government has threatened another round of deportation raids targeting Central American women and children.
Maybe it will be somewhere else entirely. It’s getting hotter every day.
I’ve always found it difficult to hear people who are full of rage. When someone is overwhelmed with anger, I want to comfort them, calm them, fix their problems. When they’re angry at me, this response isn’t helpful. When black communities rise up, reaching for the fire extinguisher (and the tear gas) is the wrong response.
When I ask about cities burning, I’m not asking how we can put out fires. I’m asking if white people have the moral courage to hear black rage. When push came to shove, will we take real risks for the sake of real change?
I think we can. Here in Philly, people are signing up to join Rapid Response Teams in the event of raids targeting Central American families. White folks are showing up across the country to disrupt Trump every time he speaks. People are putting in work, organizing their own communities. More and more of my white friends are waking up to the reality of structural racism.
Our siblings of color are getting tired. We can develop the capacity to hear black rage however it manifests. And we must practice hearing right now. It’s getting hotter every day.
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