The King Legacy: A Call for Creative Maladjustment

In the summer of 1989, I attended the annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists at the General Assembly at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Yale is right downtown, and it was my custom to get out of the hotel and university setting for most of my meals. One morning, as I was in town looking for a place to eat breakfast, a black man came up to me and said, “I am staying in the shelter and I have not had anything to eat for a long time. I am very hungry. Could you give me enough money for something to eat; I promise you I am not on drugs or alcohol; I just need some money for food.” He repeated his request and his assurance that he was drug-free a few times before stopping to let me respond.

“1 do want to give you money,” I told him, “but I will buy you something to eat. What do you want?” He was not too particular, so we found a small cafe and took our seats at the counter. The breakfast crowd had thinned out so it was not too busy. For about ten minutes we sat there, first looking over the menu, then just chatting. I began to get agitated as I watched the waitress go back and forth in front of us on her way to the coffee pot and back out to the customers in booths. We had not even been offered a cup of coffee. I watched as the waitress took orders from a couple of people who came in a few minutes after we had, I spoke politely to the waitress at first, and said, “We would like to have some coffee and place our order “I’m very busy,” she snapped, “I’ll get to you as soon as I can.” A few more minutes passed, and I began to get the picture. It took me awhile, I admit. I went to the cash register where there was a man who looked like he might be a manager, and explained to him that we had not been waited on. He come over and took our order himself

This was 1989, not 1959.

This was New Haven, Connecticut, not Greensboro, North Carolina.

I was getting just a hint of the subtle and humiliating power of racial discrimination. Just a hint.

My companion, however, had no bitter words. He was grateful to get a meal. He told me he enjoyed talking with me. He expressed no sign of anger. And his manner spoke to me of another level of humiliation, one in which I, the charitable person who responded to his hunger, participated unintentionally and unknowingly. As we parted, I felt a sense of unease—a discomfort with my own role in the lunch counter drama.

It was 1989. No need for sit-down strikes at lunch counters.

It was 1989. No need for bus boycotts or sit-ins; no need for folks to serve jail terms because they want to vote; no need for children to have armed guards so they could go to school.

And now it is 2004—40 years since Martin Luther King, Jr. stood at the Lincoln Memorial and declared his dream that someday his children would be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

The author Shelby Steele wrote a book in the early 1990s called The Content of Our Character. In it, Steele describes an incident he witnessed in the 1960s in the men’s room of a large hotel. A black attendant sat listlessly in a starched white smock next to a small table on which sat a stack of hand towels and a silver plate for tips. As a white businessman pulled out a dollar to put in the plate, a well-dressed black man said to him that no white man would be a restroom attendant. Then, as the white businessman put back the single and took out a five, the well-dressed black man asked him, did he understand the tragedy of the life of the attendant, of what it must be like to earn one’s paltry living as a symbol of inferiority? And did he realize that his privilege as an affluent white businessman was connected to the deprivation of this attendant and others like him? The well-dressed black man was performing a “racial experiment” to see how much white guilt he could evoke. But the experiment got out of hand, and when he said something about his father, the white businessman asked, “What about your father?” And the floodgates of anger were opened. Out came the rage he felt toward the white man who had all the advantages, and out came his sorrow for his father who had never had a chance and had died in bitterness and despair. The businessman then put back the five and took out a twenty-dollar bill and deposited it on the attendant’s tip plate.

And the well-dressed black man felt a sudden shame. Sold, for twenty dollars! For twenty dollars he traded his pain and his father’s pain. For twenty dollars he offered the white man absolution, cheap grace.

Shelby Steele presents this story about a friend of his to demonstrate a dynamic of race relations in America today: Black pain evokes white guilt and white guilt is used to create black power. Steele’s point is that such a power is illusory, for it depends upon keeping blacks in a victim role. It also elicits the kind of guilt from whites that preoccupies them with their own innocence: Twenty dollars in the plate and out the door. “Guilt that preoccupies people with their own innocence,” says Steele, “blinds them to those who make them feel guilty.”

Twenty dollars in the plate and out the door.

Five dollars for breakfast and out the door.

What Steele describes is an addictive system. He doesn’t call it that—I do. And in so doing, I am suggesting that a form of slavery persists today—a form in which all of us participate. In the popular jargon of Ann Wilson Schaef and others, our current slavery is a system of co-dependence. That means that we are all either addicts of one sort or another or we are contributing to a destructive system that thrives on addiction.

Many of you may be familiar with this notion of the addictive system because you have been in families where either you or a member of your family is addicted, usually to alcohol. Or it might be food or gambling or something else. If we aren’t the identified addict, chances are we have been enablers. We are the gracious hosts who keep the glass of scotch full or we are the parents who heap another helping of spaghetti on the plate of our overweight child. Or we are the children who cover up for Mom when she has a hangover, or the wife who makes excuses for the husband who forgets his appointments.

Addiction is not just one person’s issue; others in the system reinforce it. An addict is kept in his or her place, so to speak, by a whole network of relationships.

Let me come back to the issue of race and the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “there are some things in our world to which persons of goodwill must be maladjusted. Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.

Martin Luther King was creatively maladjusted.

Rosa Parks, who was too tired to give up her seat on the bus, was creatively maladjusted. Elizabeth Eckford, who walked through jeering mobs to go to school, was creatively maladjusted.

But what does it mean now to be creatively maladjusted? One thing it means is identifying our role in an addictive system and refusing to contribute to it anymore.

I do not just mean the “drug problem” which claims two black addicts for every white one. That would be a mistake —to speak of the drug problem in the African American community. The problem belongs to all of us; we are all part of the system that perpetuates a worsening condition.

Like most enablers and co-dependents, we are in denial. For white people, our worst denial is not just of our own racism. Yes, we often fail to see how our own prejudices operate. But what is worse is our denial of our own participation in the system of addiction.

Take, for example, the role of white enablers in the persistence of black victimization. I recognize my own denials here. I have for a long time been an advocate of affirmative action quotas. Indeed, I am still strongly in favor of quotas supported by programs of development and training which will accomplish racial parity. But I am beginning to see how white guilt has contributed to a system in which black people become entitled on the basis of their victim status. Victimization is a form of addiction plaguing the African American community and dividing it. And the white guilt of well. meaning liberals like you and me has enabled victimization to become the drug of choice. We are often even the dealer, the providers. Programs of entitlement have, in the words of Steele, “tended to give blacks special entitlements that in many cases are of no use because we lack the development that would put us in a position to take advantage of them. “I think,” writes Steele, “the reason there has been more entitlement than development is (along with black power) the unacknowledged white need for redemption—not true redemption, which would have focused policy on black development, but the appearance of redemption which requires only that society seem to be paying back its former victims with preferences.” This, says Steele, encourages in blacks “a dependency both on the entitlements and on the white guilt that generates them.

To mix up metaphors a bit here, we have been looking for the quick fix to a worsening problem. We buy cheap grace to soothe the conscience. Entitlements are not enough.

Twenty dollars in the plate and out the door.

The most destructive effect of any addictive system is deadening loss of spirit, loss of the human impulse for life. Anyone who has been addicted to alcohol or drugs knows that they serve to deaden your feelings, your memory, your interest in life. Food addicts literally bury their anger, stuff their feelings. Addictions keep you down.

They also serve to keep you “in your place.” (I use that term with all of its historical connotations). Addiction is a form of slavery—an escape from freedom.

Martin Luther King spoke of “spiritual death.” That’s what I am talking about. Spiritual death. And what he gave people was spiritual power. Not racial power, not legislative power, not political power—although these may have been by-products. Spiritual power. He gave it to black people and white people alike—the power to see their own fear and overcome it; the power to feel their own compassion and act on it. The power to believe in their own dignity and demand it.

As we see our own role in the addictive system, there is hope we might cease to be enablers or addicts and become part of the program of recovery. The task of white people is not to identify black people as victims who need to be taken care of by paternalistic whites; our task is to create programs for all people—black, white, Hispanic, Asian—all people who are economically or educationally disadvantaged. Our programs need not target them for their race, except to note that the goal is to lower the high percentage of people in racial minorities who lack adequate housing, nutrition, health care, and educational advancement. I sometimes read in the paper that there are no black teachers at some high school where 10 percent or higher of the students are African American. In one such school, a black honors student made a plea for equality in education, complicated by the fact that some black students resisted it. Some black students, she said, “want to act black, so they think they have to talk country. When (they) start talking in incomplete sentences, I tell them, ‘You don’t hear Martin Luther King saying “I be havin a dream,” do you?’”

Instead of programs that build upon victim status, we need programs that liberate racial groups from victim status—programs of education, nutrition, counseling, job training and health care.

Instead of a war on drugs that focuses on addicts and dealers, we need to recognize that we are part of the addictive system, and when we begin our own recovery, the system will become healthier.

Our recovery means that we look not just out there at the hatred of neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, but at our own blind spots.

Our recovery means that we of different races or cultures talk to one another—that we seek out opportunities to understand each other.

Our recovery means being creatively maladjusted to a system that is separating races and cultures and deadening the spirit.

Our recovery means having courage, conviction, and dedication to the dream.