On Black Lives Matter & Institutional Racism: A Dialogue Between Socrates and Martin LutherKing, Jr.
Dr. Richard A Rose
Dr. Rose is a Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of La Verne (CA) and serves as the Program Director for the Ecumenical Center for Black Church Studies.
SETTING: The year is 2020. Each participant is at home, comfortable in their study. The conversation takes place on Zoom.
SOC: Hello Doctor King? Glad you could dial in. Looks like there is dissatisfaction in your community these days. I have been a well-respected citizen in this area since I left Athens over 2,300 years ago and I have never seen this much discontent. Can you explain to me what’s up?
KING: Sure Socrates.. I know you are busy with your teaching of the youth, bugging city officials and everything. It is nice for you to take time off from your position of social privilege and ask about our condition. So, I’m going to be marching with these young people from BLM this Evening. Even though this march was not approved by the City officials, it is important that we make this statement against the system.
The TRUTH of the matter is that the nation is not living up to its promises and it has practices that make us feel like Lincoln is yet to pronounce the Emancipation Proclamation.
SOC: Im afraid I’m confused. What do you mean?
KING: Give me a moment. I will be happy to explain. The Declaration of Independence states as I said at the March on Washington. “In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men - yes, black men as well as white men - would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.”
SOC: Sir, I must admit you put forth a strong position. Yet, there are several key ideas that it appears you did not consider prior to your response.
KING: Pardon me?
SOC: When I had to decide whether or not I would obey the laws of Athens - the laws themselves spoke to me. Hear carefully what they said: “He who disobeys us is triply wrong: 1) in disobeying us he is disobeying his parents. 2) we are the authors of his education. 3) He has made an agreement with us that he will duly obey our commands. (204a) [“But he who has experience of the way we order justice and administer the State, and still remains, has entered into an implied contract to do as we command him.”]
So, although you have legitimate complaints the way to eradicate what you see as systematic racism, is not by marching and causing a disruption of normal life; the best way is to work within the system and change the way people are doing business. Let your little light shine, Dr. King!
KING: Socrates, you and I have much in common. You are in some ways correct, I grew up in a good home, I went to good schools, I was ordained and earned a Ph.D. degree. That is why I’m going to shine my light on you Soc. I’m doing well, however, the vast majority of my folk, especially in the inner-cities, do not have access to the same quality of EDUCATION that allows for full participation in the system. That same system, that abused them, they are then asked to obey.
SOC: Your marching is leading to looting and even some instances of people being hospitalized and some deaths have occurred. Don’t you bear responsibility for that evil? If I had been shown how my actions, before the trial, were harmful to the larger society, I would have discontinued my behavior. Now, you are aware of your error. As a man of honor, certainly you will do the right thing.
KING: Again, Socrates, you are a man of wisdom. Yes, I try to live a life of honor and I do plan to do the right thing. However, those many years since you left Athens have left you a bit rusty. It is always right to do the right thing. In this case the “right” thing is to disobey the law; I’m not calling for violence, but I do understand the anger of some with the system.
Should, I repent of their sin? I believe my mentor Gandhi would acknowledge your concern and he would encourage me to do so. But my repentance for my brother’s anger, does not erase the original concern. Institutional Racism is still preventing us from breathing in an unobstructed way. You see how Covid-19 has impacted “all” people of color disproportionately. There are too many places where we do not have access to the rooms where decisions are being made. The result is laws and policies that are made that are not good for our community.
SOC: Ah ... yes, but can you begin to pick and choose which laws you like and don’t like? I’m confident that the city officials put a great deal of thought into each law that is on the books. You are placing yourself above the law when you and your crew decide which laws are good for you. What about the rest of society? Don’t they deserve consideration?
KING: I’m glad you asked. Of course the others in society are important when making laws that effect the whole country. There are a few necessary ideas to keep in mind when drafting laws. This is essential:
A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.
An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
An unjust law a majority inflicts on a minority and is not binding on itself. A just law a majority compels a minority to follow and it is willing to follow itself.
SOC: So change the laws!
KING: That is what the Civil Rights Movement did. But the policies and practices remain.
SOC: So you are telling me there are practices and policies that have been in place for hundreds of years and in other cases corporate policies that affect your lives, but you do not have access to the places the decisions are made.
KING: That is correct.
SOC: And these conditions are causing hardships on workers and their families. That is a concern. And have you approached them and tried to negotiate a better arrangement, better conditions?
KING: Yes, and every time we have been misled, one excuse after another. My people are tired and frustrated. So we have a plan. We have identified our concerns and sought negotiations and have been put off. We believe our cause is just:
So, because of our commitment to justice and truth, we cannot participate in this corrupt system. So we are bringing attention to the institutional corruption in the very system that brings you, Socrates, such satisfaction.
SOC: Well, I see why they call you King. You are the type of person I would want to be King of my ideal state. I like the way you think. The Eternal Truths on which you are building your movement are impressive. Where is this March headed? I think I will join you. Maybe we can work together to get them to reconsider their behavior in the light of self-reflection.
KING: Great! We are always looking for people of outstanding character to join us. I will have a BLM T-shirt for you when you arrive, we will be honored if you will wear it.
SOC: You know I only wear this piece of cloth that looks like a Toga.
KING: Okay, no problem, I will see if I can get you a BLM mask! See you in the Streets!