As a relatively privileged white person, it’s hard to know how to acknowledge Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2023. Do you post an MLK quote, or is that “virtue signaling”? I believe this is a day to listen to Black voices about the ongoing struggle for civil rights in this country. However, I also believe it’s an opportunity to think critically and discuss how MLK’s vision of society applies to the present moment. I wrote this review of Emma Dabri’s 2021 book What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition because, like MLK, Dabri compellingly urges us to embrace radical inclusive change as a response to racial injustice. Additionally, she critiques relatable aspects of the current anti racism movement she sees as counterproductive to those ends.
As a PHD with a background in African Studies and sociology, Dabiri discusses race from a historical and psychological perspective that resonated with me on both an intellectual and personal level. Her perspective as an Irish-Nigerian woman who has also spent a significant time in the US leads to a global and non-US-centric view of racism. Her writing style is accessible, direct and to the point (I’m not a very fast reader and finished this book in about three hours). Perhaps most importantly, she seems to know a ton about music and posts about it regularly. Go follow her and read her book.
As the title suggests, Dabri’s book is directed at white people sympathetic to the anti-racist cause. Strikingly, she confronts the guilt we white people feel when engaging in anti-racist work and pushes us to move past it. “Guilt is counterproductive in many ways”, Dabri writes. “Ultimately, guilt and shame have nothing to offer. As a white person, dwelling in either state as a response to racism is self-indulgent and white centered; it will also dictate that you prioritize making yourself feel better, rather than bringing about any meaningful change.” Dabri doesn’t discount the need for some self examination of privilege, but she doesn’t mince words in challenging us to do more than “the inner work.” She calls on us to actively participate in efforts to challenge systemic causes of racism.
SPOILER ALERT: turns out capitalism is the “systemic cause” of racism. That wasn’t necessarily my opinion going into this book, but Dabri makes a compelling historical case. She illustrates that the history of racism is inextricably tied to the exploitation of working people of all colors by the ruling class, then convincingly argues that the very concept of “race” was created as a tool to divide working classes and prevent coalitions that could threaten the elite. It was hard to read this without my mind immediately jumping to parallels of recent electoral politics, most infamously Trump pitting marginalized immigrants against marginalized white people.
Dabri argues that pushing back against unfettered capitalism through progressive policies that benefit everyone is the most realistic path to addressing racial injustice. The current racial wealth gap, which Dabri illustrates is a clear result of exploitive history, is striking. In 2016 the net worth of a typical white family was nearly ten times greater than that of a black family. The pragmatic solution is making the wealthy pay their fair share, including government-influencing billionaires who pay little or nothing in taxes, and using that money to make housing, education, healthcare more affordable as well as ensure we all inhabit a livable planet. These universal benefit programs paid with progressive taxation disproportionately improve the lives of Black people without seeming biased towards them. This is why MLK said “The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of wealth and power”.
Dabri’s path forward echoes the wisdom of MLK’s “Poor People’s Campaign”: address inequality by forming multi-racial coalitions that push back against unfettered capitalism and the tiny ruling class driving it. However, it’s not just Trump that’s dividing working class coalitions. It’s the left, especially on social media. “The nature of social media is such that the performance of saying something often trumps doing anything; the tendency to police language, to shame and to say the right thing, often outweighs more substantive efforts,” Dabri writes. It’s a reminder that potentially divisive hot takes on social media are quick and cheap, but taking the time to compassionately hash out differences with a friend, or a stranger you’re calling on behalf of a political or labor campaign, is what actually moves us forward. To Dabri it’s about results, not blame.
This book feels particularly relevant to share given the response I see to the anti-racism movement by some in my white community. I’m from and currently reside in Portland, Oregon — a liberal enclave which also happens to be the whitest big city in America. I see firsthand from some friends how their guilt and frustration over the lack of our community’s diversity leads to them take fringe stances like “abolish the police”, even though the vast majority of Black Americans oppose that. Despite this attempt at solidarity from white Portlanders, the consensus from my Black Portlander friends is that they don’t necessarily feel more welcome as a result, possibly because of the “white savior” attitude Dabri writes about. Meanwhile, these fringe and polarizing stances risk alienating the suburban voters who were an essential part of the coalition that defeated Trump in 2020. From Dabri’s perspective, centering race in every discussion only furthers divisions and that it’s time to focus on a truly unifying agenda.
MLK feels like a day to re-examine heated tempers and hot takes that arose during the summer of 2020 and consider what will actually address racial justice. To Dabri and to MLK, the most pragmatic way to advance racial justice is to build a truly inclusive coalition that’s wide enough to achieve justice for all. Coalitions require compassion for and engagement with people you don’t agree with on every issue. It requires effort towards relationship building, which fortunately is more personally rewarding than posting activist content on social media. One of the most effective and sustainable ways to actively participate in this movement and honor the legacy of MLK is to join a grassroots organizing group. Here are a few ones nationwide with local chapters that I think do amazing work at pushing back against unfettered capitalism:
- Sunrise Movement
- People’s Action
- Any other org in the Green New Deal network
- Essentially any labor union
If you’re in Oregon, there’s also a ballot initiative campaign called Oregon Rebate that is doing some incredible coalition building work to tax wealthy corporations and reinvest in communities through direct cash payments. It’s been compared to Universal Basic Income, which is a policy MLK himself advocated for.