The Problem With the White Moderate

Moderation has kept me disengaged and unable — unwilling — to understand the racism that exists in our country

Photo: Chau Tran/EyeEm/Getty Images

It’s a season of critical self-reflection and reexamination. I am coming to terms with some hard truths about racism and choosing to move in a direction that aligns with my values more.

In a recent reread of the “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr., I was struck by something I had glossed over before. I felt the sting when King calls out the “white moderate.”

He writes, “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to Justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of Justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”

I am the white moderate.

For too long now, I’ve rested comfortably, not persuaded by the rallying cries of either side of the aisle. I wore my moderation like a badge of intellectual honor rather than examining what my action — or, more accurately, my inaction — actually meant. I rested too comfortably.

Moderation is about self-control, not self-censorship and disengagement. By opting out of discussions around anti-Black racism, I’ve been complicit in supporting the status quo. The events of 2020 have demonstrated that the status quo is not what I should blindly accept and perpetuate. We have seen acts of brutality, unnecessary violence, disregard for fellow humans, and breathtaking moves toward tyranny. Moderation has kept me disengaged and unable — unwilling — to understand the racism that continues to exist in our country. Moderation has kept me from acknowledging the reality of white supremacy and acknowledging my privilege. As a result, I had but a shallow understanding of these matters.

In “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” King notes further:

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”

Moderation means not “getting worked up” by the issues. By opting out, moderates are de facto disengaged, and supporters of the prevailing climate. To be silent and avoid the issues today means support of racist policies and practices.

I have been woefully uninformed and unaware of how I, as a white (male) moderate, participated in the perpetuation of white supremacy. I have been part of conversations that condoned a troubling message: “Yes, we do agree that Black people in our community are treated differently than whites. But using a movement with the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ is going to push people away.” But that statement is a blatant case of tone policing. It is a disingenuous attempt to enforce “politeness” in the face of anger without having to examine the cause.

We cannot sit in a privileged position and claim that we support Black Lives Matter, and then ask that the case be made more quietly.

In Frederick Douglass’ July 5, 1852 speech, we hear a resonant echo of disengaged moderation. The tone police were out long before the racist practice had a name:

“But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, it is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more, and denounce less, would you persuade more, and rebuke less, your cause would be much more likely to succeed.”

We cannot sit in a privileged position and claim that we support Black Lives Matter and then ask that the case be made more quietly. We can look to King or Douglass or countless others who have reminded us that silence, appalling silence in the face of injustice, is complicity and a tacit endorsement of injustice.

Yet I’m not counseling myself or others to dive into the excesses of the political maelstrom. I do not recommend digging into the conspiracy theories spinning wildly out of control (whether they be critical theory or QAnon). Instead, cultivate a rich understanding of the issues. To engage in the conversation and face uncomfortable truths. To amplify voices that have, for too long, been oppressed. Forsaking justice to preserve a mirage of order is not moderation — it’s tone policing or worse. It’s worse.

Ibram X. Kendi reminds us that being anti-racist is “like fighting an addiction, being an anti-racist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.”

The time for change is now. Will we take this opportunity to stand up for what justice demands? Will we have the courage to have the necessary conversations — to leave behind the idea of being not-racist, and stepping into the role of acting like an anti-racist? Can we choose to forego the mirage of safety in being a political moderate, and take a stand for justice?

I choose to stand.

Dad, husband, thinker, writer, exerciser. “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” — Dumbledore

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Momentum is a blog that captures and reflects the moment we find ourselves in, one where rampant anti-Black racism is leading to violence, trauma, protest, reflection, sorrow, and more. Momentum doesn’t look away when the news cycle shifts.

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