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The philosopher King

An MLK scholar on how we lost sight of King’s nuanced politics — and how we can revive them today.

American civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering a speech circa 1967.
Christian Hirou/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Virtually every American knows the basic outline of what Martin Luther King Jr. did. But very few are familiar with the reasons he did it.

That’s what Brandon Terry, a professor of African and African American studies at Harvard, believes. In his research, Terry has delved into King’s voluminous public writings to try to understand the thinker behind the activist. What he found was an incredibly sophisticated body of work on racism, class, and democratic politics that goes well beyond what most people know about King. In 2018, Terry and co-author Tommie Shelby convened a group of leading scholars to write a book rescuing King’s political thought from the clutches of sanitized public memory.

After reading an essay Terry wrote on King in a recent issue of the Boston Review, I decided to call up him to ask about applying King’s ideas to some of the most pressing issues in contemporary American politics. What is King’s theory of racism, and to what extent is it an improvement on the way we talk about it today? How does King address the intersection between race and class? How could a Kingian politics improve on the way we do protest today or deal with the phenomenon of social media shaming?

What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Zack Beauchamp

King is obviously one of the most famous figures in American public life, but he’s far better known as an activist than a political thinker. His legacy is often portrayed in this kind of anodyne, centrist model — evoked in such a rote way that he can seem almost boring.

So I’m curious: What motivated you to resuscitate King’s work as a political theorist?

Brandon Terry

The main currents in my family are a folk Black radical nationalist tradition and a centrist Black Democratic tradition. I came of political maturity and awareness in the ’90s, in the wake of the full-blown Malcolm X revival. Malcolm X is in every rap song. He’s received a hagiographic treatment in Spike Lee’s [1992] biopic; I read Malcolm X’s autobiography at an early age. In the face of all of that, King seemed like he didn’t really have the answers we were looking for anymore.

But I started reading his writings for the first time through these amazing professors I had, people like Michael Dawson and Tommie Shelby. And I realized that I didn’t really know anything about him. I had heard packaged clips of “I Have a Dream,” just like every other half-awake American citizen. But I never sat down and just read his enormous amount of work.

You’ve got Stride Toward Freedom. You’ve got Why We Can’t Wait. You’ve got Where Do We Go From Here? You’ve got Trumpet of Conscience. Not to mention hundreds of speeches and essays. And the more and more I sat with these writings, I just found them utterly compelling in lots of ways — really challenging to some of the assumptions I had about politics, about social theory.

And I wanted other people to have that experience. It became one of my favorite things to teach as I became a professor, because I could just watch it have the same effect on students that it had on me.

Zack Beauchamp

So when you say that being exposed to King’s actual writing had this really transformative effect on you, what do you mean? Or, maybe more precisely, where does King’s thinking improve on the worldviews you grew up with?

Brandon Terry

He puts forward an analysis of the multiple sources of Black disadvantage in a way that troubles Black nationalists, [who frame] questions of Black disadvantage as primarily, or almost in their totality, explained by white supremacy. He’s able to put forward ideas about what’s changing about political economy in the 1960s: offshoring, automation, the burgeoning digitization of work, [and the] robotics revolution.

These things are not driven by white supremacy. They’re driven by efficiency considerations and capitalist enterprise. They’re driven by the need to garner more profit for managerial executives and owners of capital. Because of the history of white supremacy in this country, and because of the current functioning of discrimination, the negative externalities of those developments fall really heavily on the poorest African Americans.

Martin Luther King Jr. meets with a group of church ministers in Chicago on May 27, 1966.
Jeff Kamen/Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

King just had a much richer story about that than I think some of the folk Black nationalist tradition, and that has political implications. If you think something like that is true, it makes the idea of a go-it-alone politics, any politics of narrow separatism or politics that emphasizes cultural rituals, look like dead ends.

Even worse, it makes them look like really dangerous rhetorical options for people who really aren’t that concerned with ameliorating the plight of the truly disadvantaged — and instead want to carve out spaces of ownership for a small group of Black elites. I think his view right there is just really, really powerful.

Zack Beauchamp

You make a related point in your Boston Review essay, where you use King’s thought to criticize the assumption that any kind of racial inequality is explained purely by racism. In contemporary context, that to me reads like a critique of Ibram Kendi’s work — or, at least, the way his work has been deployed as part of what I’d call “pop anti-racism.”

Am I putting words in your mouth, or is there some real tension here?

Brandon Terry

There’s a school of thought out there that sees racial disparity and says, “This disparity is the result, or constitutes in and of itself racism.” Or that the disparity is in and of itself a racial injustice. I don’t exactly know, if cornered, if this is what Kendi would say. But I think for all sorts of reasons, you have to be extremely careful about that.

One reason is that it presumes that the disparity is negative, right? I once went to an amazing presentation by [Northwestern University sociologist] Mary Pattillo where she flipped disparity discourse on its head. She actually just spent her entire presentation giving examples of disparities in which Black people are on the better end: things like suicide rates, certain self-esteem questions.

And then there’s a social theory question, which is: What explains the source of the disadvantage? And we have to take seriously the idea that for cultural reasons, for reasons of political economy, for some utterly contingent reasons — everything is not going to be explained by racial animus, racial ideology, the practice of racial domination.

Let me just give you, again, one political implication of this thing. The sociologist Chris Muller has this amazing new research where he shows that the racial disparity in incarceration is declining but the class disparity is growing, because [the US is] incarcerating more white people who don’t finish high school and fewer college-educated Black people. This is not unraveling the deeper problems [in the American criminal justice system]: structural inequities built into the economy and a culture of punitiveness that flows out of idiosyncratic features of American culture.

To me, our problems are just simply more complicated. That’s bad because it makes it harder to get a handle on them at the level of social theory, but it’s good politically because it at least leaves open the question of there being a bigger coalition to fix these things.

Zack Beauchamp

So if simple disparity isn’t the right way to think about racism, what’s the Kingian alternative?

Brandon Terry

King, I think, is trying to get at a couple of things [in his theory of racism]. One is that there are psychological elements — a practice of reasoning that entails certain forms of irrationality.

An [example] is expecting there to be a Black desire for revenge and retaliation at every turn. To me, that’s one of the hallmarks of American racism. You see it in Thomas Jefferson, you see it in Tocqueville’s description of why he thinks the presence of the Negro race is the biggest threat to the persistence of American democracy. You see it in the “rising tide of color against the white world” hysterics that opened up the 20th century that were parodied in The Great Gatsby. You see it in the fear and panic over Black Power. You see it in Glenn Beck frantically writing on the chalkboard that the Affordable Care Act is really a secret reparations plan hatched by Barack Obama.

The idea is that if they get power, they’ll do to us what we’ve done to them, right? It’s this paranoid reasoning that I think is pretty central. It’s one of many psychological pathologies that are attached to racial reasoning.

The second piece is these cognitive and empathetic failures. Part of what is wrong about racism is that it’s false as a mode of cognitive reasoning and as a moral reasoning: You have these failures to respond to the suffering you see around you. Think of cases like Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and George Floyd. The callousness in some people’s response to those deaths reflects not just malice — it’s a deep failure to see what’s lost when a life like that is extinguished.

Protesters march in the streets of Beverly Hills after George Zimmerman was found not guilty of second-degree murder for the death of Trayvon Martin.
Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images

King would sometimes talk about racism as this theory of only one group being able to contribute to the progress of the world; that’s what he’s getting at. Trayvon Martin had something profound to contribute to the world — his life should be mourned. When we don’t respond that way to that life being extinguished, just because of the skin it’s wrapped in, that strikes me as a constitutive element of racism.

Sometimes education policy people will make these sorts of arguments where they say, “Because we’ve underinvested in Black and Brown communities, we’re losing trillions in economic productivity.” And there’s a reason those arguments are totally ineffective: The people that they’re meant to persuade don’t believe that reservoir of possibility exists in those communities.

And then the last piece, for King, is the idea that [racial inequities are embodied] in practices and habits that get rooted in policies, laws, habits, and institutions. They congeal over time to be real features of our sociopolitical world.

King says that you really can’t understand what we’re up against if you don’t take seriously the idea that this is a congenital problem in America: that these practices, that these ideas have dug their heels deep into our structural arrangements.

Zack Beauchamp

So let’s take this theory and apply it to the present day. How would a Kingian antiracist politics think through and address our very different contemporary set of social problems?

Brandon Terry

Part of the trouble with thinking with Martin Luther King Jr. is that he’s become so iconic, and the civil rights movement has become so iconic, that we forget that their arguments, that their forms of demonstration, that their practices are answers to questions, particular questions they were trying to ask.

King’s philosophy is born of struggle. And these ideas, his attempts to theorize the social world, come out of experiments in politics. He’s got a view that part of what protest is about is trying to throw the reflexes and habits of a politics of domination off balance, so that people might hear the other’s arguments better and really respond to them.

The metaphor he often used was “moral jiujitsu.” In jiujitsu, you use the force of the opponent’s attack against them, redirecting the force to do something surprising. And King’s always trying to think like that.

In his time, he thought the greatest stereotype against Black people that’s being used to diminish our equal standing is the idea that we are passive recipients of all manner of abuse who don’t value our own standing. That we will tolerate any infringement upon our person and be humiliated ad nauseam.

If that’s the stereotype regime in which you inhabit, then the kinds of protests that they developed are just remarkable aesthetic and political responses to that set of presumptions. Who could hold that view after witnessing what the civil rights movement’s classical phase sought to demonstrate?

They were so successful in their challenge to that regime of stereotype that you and I live under the exact opposite regime — which is that Black people are now seen as hypersensitive, so utterly obsessed with any slight, that they will fly off the handle and protest at a moment’s notice. We are the protest people in people’s imagination.

Part of the task of our intellectuals, and part of the task of our activists, is to recover [King’s] questions. So instead of saying, “We know what a protest looks like, because we’ve seen it on Black History Month footage,” we need to say, “They were protesting in a way meant to disarm fear. What are the fears of our moment, and how might we disarm them?”

When we talk about voter suppression, King thought the vote was a matter of dignity. Are our protests about voter suppression appropriately conveying that this is a matter of dignity, not of partisan politics?

So recovering the questions is really, really important.