It is Martin Luther King Day, and I just finished reading the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” written by Dr. King in response to the criticism he received from white clergymen over his decision to take nonviolent action to protest systemic racism. You can find the letter published on the Washington Post’s website here.
As I read the letter, it struck me that there are parallels between how we as a society are dealing with racism, and with the threat posed by climate change. In both cases, broad patterns of facts are disregarded in favor of intense fighting over specific situations. In both cases, accepting and confronting those broader patterns of facts require a fundamental reorganization of how our society works. In both cases, the status quo involves leaving power and economic structures intact, without disturbing the immediate comfort of those who benefit at the cost of those who do not. In both cases, the status quo means not only perpetuating harsh consequences of social and environmental injustice, but also a deferred but terrible price for those who currently benefit from the status quo.
Currently, there is sharp debate raging over whether DonaldTrump is a racist. Yet in the same newspapers in recent months, other stories have reported that black women are far more likely to suffer from deadly complications during and following childbirth, that opioids were far more likely to be prescribed to white patients, that black men are far more likely to suffer from excessive use of force by police, that young black children are far more likely to be given suspensions from school for misbehavior that earns white children reprimands. Efforts to “ensure the integrity of the voting system” also systematically disenfranchise large numbers of people of color. The list goes on. These are all examples of systemic racism.
Does it matter what Donald Trump said in any given instance? Certainly this administration has made no effort at all to address the terrible inequities facing American citizens of African descent, or other citizens whose genetic heritage is not predominantly western European. By extension, the question then becomes one of how much have the rest of us have resisted, and responded to these larger patterns of injustice. Perhaps it shouldn’t be just black football players who take the knee, metaphorically or otherwise.
Similarly, the “debate” over global warming centers on large arguments over small fragments of data. Does the “heat island” effect explain warming? (No, it does not). The last 20 years don’t show warming (that argument limited itself to data from only the atmosphere, and it isn’t accurate anyway). Arguing over whether tree ring data really fit this or that pattern is ludicrous in view of the extraordinary range of data that all point to the same conclusion. Given that, the fact that we haven’t yet quite figured out the role of low-elevation clouds caused by diesel particles seems rather insignificant. The larger patterns will speak for themselves, if we pay attention.
This presidential administration has shown itself to be openly defiant of facts, willfully ignoring data for belief, and has skillfully used the stories we create about ourselves to inflame denial, hatred and fear. Stories are indeed a powerful component of the human psyche. Yet, deliberately overlooking the stories told by broad patterns of facts in the service of protecting our own little stories is neither worthy of the ideals upon which this nation was founded, nor an effective strategy to protect ourselves from the violent changes that denial will bring in the end. We are far better off choosing the story framed by the ideals of Dr. King than the dark, dystopian story that has swept over our national discourse over the last two years.
It is fitting we have set aside a day to honor one of the greatest American citizens who ever lived. It is even more fitting when the conversation today centered on how we move forward to ensure that the facts, those stubborn things, are recognized, so that we can realistically assess how far we have yet to go on our journey toward true equality and justice, indeed our species’ long-term survival. We will all need to face the best version of truth that we have in order to begin the move toward solutions.