Updated: Sep 22
Chaos or Community?
Book Author: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. RL Booker's Ratings
WRITING STYLE: 4.5/5
DID IT MOVE ME?: 5/5
(Rating: 5 highest & 1 lowest)
“The roots of racism are very deep in America. Historically, it was so acceptable in the national life that today it still only lightly burdens the conscience…it is not enough to say, we love negroes, we have negro friends. They [white people] must demand justice for negroes.” - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
This book was published 52 years ago, but I found it to be as relevant today as it was in 1968. Eight months into a worldwide pandemic, more than 1.3 million (19% of these were in the U.S.) people have died. For Black and Brown communities here in America, COVID-19 has only exacerbated the disparities they have navigated for centuries. Because of the long-standing history of oppression and marginalization, Black and Brown people are more likely to be front-line workers making minimum wage and the Black unemployment rate has increased from 5% to 17%. We also are living through a period of palpable racial unrest: this summer, millions of Americans took to the streets to protest police brutality; global corporations issued anti-racist commitments and pledges, and candidates running for elected office this fall—from city council, all the way to the president—distinguished themselves by their willingness to stoke racial anxieties or try to heal them.
As if he were speaking to us today, Dr. King challenges White Americans to figure out how to utilize the social and economic orders to become a conscious democracy. He asserts that "a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense...[could pay] adequate wages to school teachers, social workers, and other servants of the public.” If America is going to make significant efforts in fixing any of these problems, we all need to first understand that we can't treat people all the same and ignore the legacy of slavery and racism. To ignore these truths is to shut off solutions.
In surveying the American landscape of the late 1960s, Dr. King argues that affirmative action programs, if utilized correctly, would be the way to alleviate poverty, insecurity, and injustice. Fifty years later, national research makes it clear that the greatest benefactor of affirmative action programs has been White women. Imagine if lawmakers from 1969 to 2020 had not discriminated in how they continued to cut funding to Black communities, in their hiring practices, in bank lending practices, and in neighborhood schools and infrastructure. What would our country look like today if, instead, they had fully committed to making amends for 350+ years of slavery and Jim Crow domestic terrorism that our government legalized, eventually outlawed, and then idly stood by while Black neighborhoods, schools, and communities were plagued with poverty and, as a result, high crime rates?
Responsible leadership and decision-making require honest assessments of where you are before determining where you want to go and how you are going to get there.
Under the theme Where Are We, Dr. King explores the truth of equality and race relations in America. He states, "the majority of White Americans consider themselves committed to justice for the Negro...but, unfortunately, this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity." Dr. King, through many examples and stats, makes the case that White America had not done enough to assist Black Americans who had for so long suffered from the oppression and denial of access to resources to help create equality.
He also addresses the prevalence of riots in America and the responsibility that Black folks and White folks have when it comes to acknowledging the underlying causes of social unrest. When Black people riot, our communities suffer the most. Dr. King believed that non-violence was the best way for Black folks to have their voices heard. He also strongly believed that "the average White person also has a responsibility...to resist the impulse to seize upon the rioter as the exclusive villain...[instead] he has to rise up with indignation against his own municipal, state, and national governments to demand that the necessary reforms be instituted which alone will protect him." Dr. King was clearly calling on those who consider themselves to be White allies to speak up and take a stand for those who for centuries had been marginalized and oppressed.
In a section titled “The Dilemma of Negro Americans”, Dr. King gives a detailed history of how Blacks were forcefully brought to America. He explains the effects of slavery on Blacks, which we can still see in the vestiges today. One part of this section that really touched me was when he discusses that every Black child "suffers a traumatic emotional burden" when they come to understand the implications of black skin on their quality of life and their very existence. For Dr. King, "it is impossible for White Americans to grasps the depths and dimensions of the Negro's dilemma without understanding what it means to be a Negro in America."
For King, “Being a Negro in America means:
trying to smile when you cry.
It means trying to hold on to physical life amid psychological death.
It means the pain of watching your children grow up with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies.
It means having your legs cut off, and then being condemned for being cripple.
It means seeing your mother and father spiritually murdered by the slings and arrows of daily exploitation, and then being hated for being an orphan.
It means listening to suburban politicians talk eloquently against open housing while arguing in the same breath that they are not racists.
It means being harried by day and haunted by night by a nagging sense of nobodyness and constantly fighting to be saved from the poison of bitterness.
It means the ache and anguish of living in so many situations where hopes unborn have died.”
While he believed that White Americans have the largest responsibility in bringing about long-lasting equitable change, he challenged Black Americans to confront their dilemma with positives of inner determination through a four-step framework.
Step 1: Develop a rugged somebodyness.
Step 2: Work passionately for group identity.
Step 3. Make full and constructive use of the freedom we already possess.
Step 4. Unite around powerful action programs to eradicate the last vestiges of racial injustice.
Throughout this book, Dr. King addresses systemic racism but also gives Blacks information to help them navigate the challenges and struggles they face. Make no mistake, Dr. King was not saying Blacks could achieve all their dreams through bootstrap individualism. Rather, he was giving them mechanisms to survive.
Where DO we go from here?
If Dr. King were alive today, I do not think he would be happy about the state of America. As I look at the boiling point that America is at now...protests in the streets, riots, the call for police accountability, and how to mobilize an Antiracist movement, I have to say that Dr. King warned us in this book. He states, if America "does not now respond constructively to the challenge to banish racism, some future historians will have to say that a great civilization died because it lacked the soul and commitment to make justice a reality for all men.”
It is not too late to avoid the death of our civilization, but it's up to us to speak up, protest, call out injustice, and hold our lawmakers accountable. It is now up to us to make the change that Dr. King so longed for.
Notable Quotes in the Book
“The poor can stop being poor if the rich are willing to become even richer at a slower rate”
"Together we must learn to live as brothers or together we will be forced to perish as fools"
“Even where the door has been forced partially open, mobility for the Negro is still sharply restricted. There is often no bottom at which to start, and when there is, there is almost always no room at the top”
“America owes a debt of justice which it has only begun to pay. If it loses the will to finish or slackens in its determination, history will recall its crimes and the country that would be great will lack the most indispensable element of greatness - justice”
“It would be neither true nor honest to say that the Negro’s status is what it is because he is innately inferior or because he is basically lazy and listless or because he has not sought to lift himself by his bootstraps. To find the origins of the Negro problem we must turn to the white man’s problem”
“One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change…but today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change”
King Jr., M.L. (1968). Where do we go from here: Chaos or community? New York, Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.