Letter from a Social Justice Jail

Letter from my cell…….

Once again, the time has arrived to celebrate the holiday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Each January, many people dust off old quotes from Dr. King, misconstrue the meaning of those quotes and then pontificate on what they believe Dr. King’smessage would be to the world if he was still alive. This is also the time of year where many breakfasts, lunches, workshops and seminars supposedly teach the tenets of Dr. King’s philosophy and host speeches by individuals who have not even studied or read the works of Dr. King. Yes, it is that time of year.

In years past, I too have found it easier to join the crowd and write an essay with a few Dr. King quotes. This year is different for me, and as a result, has been the most difficult time that I have ever experienced in writing an essay focused on Dr. King. While I kept trying to come up with Dr. King quotes and thoughts to share that might inspire you, I kept hearing the voice of Dr. King saying “that is not it, keep trying.” That voice then led me to go back and reread Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and then pen this essay describing the current state of social justice and what you and others can do about it. That is when I decided to write Dr. King a letter entitled, “A Letter from a Social Justice Jail.”

Unjust Laws Create Unjust Outcomes

In his letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King speaks about the applications of unjust laws.

“These are just a few examples of unjust and just laws. There are some instances when a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I was arrested Friday on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong with an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade, but when the ordinance is used to preserve segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and peaceful protest, then it becomes unjust.”

In refection, it is clear through Dr. King’s example, that the unjust application of a legitimate ordinance used to silence a people’s voice is application of law in an unjust manner. This application of the law landed Dr. King and others in jail and resulted in an unjust outcome. Similarly, in 2021 there remain many laws that govern or restrict the ability of people of color-owned businesses to prosper in a just manner economically. On their face these laws and practices are straight forward. They require detailed RFPs for the ability for people of color owned businesses to complete, they require exorbitant amounts of insurance for small business opportunities, they require 30-45 day waiting periods for reimbursement and payment to vendors. These are just a few of these laws and practices. These laws and practices currently prevent businesses from intentionally and thoughtfully employing people of color owned businesses and serve much like the parade ordinance in Birmingham. Instead of stifling speech, these laws stifle economic opportunity for communities who need it.

Dr. King, my commitment in 2022 is to eliminate or reduce the effectiveness of these unjust laws and practices and increase the just outcomes for people of color owned businesses at Children’s Minnesota.

We are Our Brother’s and Sister’s Keeper

In his letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King speaks of common causes and threats to injustice.

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.”

Dr. King’s quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” is commonly used when people refer to Dr. King and his works. However, what does it really mean and how can it be applied. In order to completely understand, we must acknowledge that, at times, if an injustice is not directly happening to us, we ignore it. It is not a priority to address it, because we do not directly feel the pain of an unjust outcome. Instead, we try and close our eyes and ignore the threat of injustice and hope it never touches our doorsteps. In healthcare and at Children’s Minnesota, we have sometimes ignored the injustices of systemic racism. We have ignored the poor health outcomes caused by the inability of Children’s Minnesota and others to acknowledge that we have ignored the needs of certain patients and prioritized the needs of others. This disregard for some may be intentional or unintentional, but as Dr. King states,that does not matter. What matters is the injustice and disparities in outcomes that result from this inaction.

Dr. King, my commitment in 2022 is to review and act upon unjust policies and practices. These may include policies such as behavioral contracts that restrict family access to patients at Children’s Minnesota and disproportionally impact families of color. I will also prioritize reviewing and acting upon patient experience complaints by families of color, and change the system so that these families are heard, valued, appreciated and respected.

Waiting is No Longer an Option

In his letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King said that waiting on justice is in fact no justice at all. Imagine if during the Civil Rights Movement these things were experienced by your family,

“I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness” –then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

Since the murders of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Ahmad Arbury, Daunte Wright and many others, we have reexamined public safety, policing, racism, bias, procedural justice, de-escalation and many other topics. Some have even decided that it is time to conduct yet another research study on the impact of racism as a public health issue. Others have decided to study health, economic, mental wellness, employability and other factors in order to get even more concrete data as they “wait” to solve the problems of injustice. This wait is unacceptable.

As Dr. King lays out in his letter, as you wait, damage continues to occur. Lynching, police violence, poverty and family destruction continue to occur. Family destruction is what we tend to overlook at times, but is what Dr. King wanted us to open our eyes to. He said imagine being a father and you cannot create access for your child to an amusement park because of her skin color and you have to explain that to her. Imagine being a father and you have to explain to your son why white people hate you and him because of your skin color. Imagine places you want to eat, sleep or drink that have a sign that says “No Negroes Allowed.” Imagine that the N word, boy, coon and other derogatory names became how you are addressed in front of your wife and children. Imagine that racism has consumed you and your family for generations and someone tells you to “wait” and hold on a little longer so we can study and see what the root cause of these problems are before we begin to solve them. Waiting is not acceptable.

Dr. King, in 2022, I commit that I will not wait, but that I will act upon injustice.

Just Do Something!

Instead of waiting, analyzing and pontificating, I ask that you spend the 2022 Dr. King Holiday doing rather than waiting. Here’s a menu of “to do” options:

1. Read or listen to an entire speech or sermon by Dr. King. Review it in the context of the audience, the situation, the desired outcomes and how this could manifest itself today. DO NOT SIMPLY POST ANOTHER MLK QUOTE. Learn more about Dr. King and the true meaning of his work, so that you can use that learning to create systemic change.

2. Commit to an action (personal action plan) that will change some of the conditions of injustice. Do something! DO NOT ONLY PERFORM ACTS OF CHARITY (donations, serving food, etc.), instead, commit to actions that will change unjust processes and inequitable outcomes. Commit to systems change and actions.

3. Listen, Listen, Listen to your Black friends and colleagues and do not act without really hearing the root causes of their pain and stresses. DO NOT ASK THEM WHAT TO DO, however, make sure you listen to and incorporate what is desired before you create another breakfast, monument or ceremony for Dr. King.

As you think about your 2022 MLK Holiday and the rest of the year, I leave you with these words from Dr. King as he closed out his letter from a Birmingham Jail.

“I MUST make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last 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 the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor 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 can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come. This is what has happened to the American Negro.”

“I had hoped that the white moderate would see this. Maybe I was too optimistic. Maybe I expected too much. I guess I should have realized that few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearnings of those that have been oppressed, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent, and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it.”


#Fade to Black

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