South Dakota Black Lives Matter (such a group exists) is holding a vigil this evening in Sioux Falls, 6 p.m., 11th and Duluth.
Kayla Koterwski is organizing the vigil. She describes herself as a feminist, activist, anti-racist transformative troublemaker. She’s a white (at least she looks that way to me) ELCA Lutheran who graduated from Tea High School and studied at Augsburg and Augustana. Koterwski tells Mark Walker why she thinks South Dakotans are uneasy about having the “Black Lives Matter” conversation:
I think it’s two main concerns. I think one, there is a lot of misconception on what the line “black lives matter” means. Does that mean that inheritably other lives don’t matter? That’s a concern I hear a lot. Of course that doesn’t mean other lives inheritably don’t matter. It means that their lives — that our justice system does not recognize and appreciate (them) and it’s important that we call that out. I think the other thing is that people are scared to be wrong. Particularly, when you exist in a white body, you live in a system that has always told you that you are right. Being told you are wrong and feeling the guilt of that and not letting that guilt stop you from engaging in really important work is hard. It’s scary because we aren’t used to being wrong. It’s an important lesson to learn [Kayla Koterwski, interviewed by Mark Walker, that Sioux Falls paper, 2016.07.08].
White Catholic Republican Pat Powers steps in to pretend he is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ideological heir and counterintentionally underscores Koterwski’s point:
Martin Luther King marched, and died, in the 1960’s for a dream of an equal and color-blind nation….
MLK spoke about America as a promise, and under it’s framework, all men are created equal, and deserve equal access and opportunity under the promise. The American Dream is our only system, and it has nothing to do with race, except to remind people that it isn’t, and shouldn’t be a factor.
That’s what “the system” I was brought up in taught me. And I don’t think there’s anything that I was taught that is remotely “wrong” [Pat Powers, “Sioux Falls Black Lives Matter organizer Claims We Should Feel Guilt over “the System.” But, the System Belongs to Us All,” Dakota War College, 2016.07.09].
I, a white atheist Democrat, aspire to a color-blind, melting-pot America. But I recognize that America has not yet realized that ideal. That’s exactly what Koterwski says (in the part of the quote Powers leaves out) when she says our justice system does see color.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was not wrong to hope for a future America whose citizens and institutions make no judgments based on skin color. King was being prescriptive, saying what should be. But if we’re being descriptive, saying what is, we are terribly wrong if we contend that the “American Dream” that King and Pat and I seem to share is practiced fully by the American system. For evidence, look no further than the dead black mostly law-abiding gun owner about whose curbside execution by police the National Rifle Association has been awkwardly reticent.
It’s easy for Pat and me to talk about achieving a color-blind society because we have enjoyed the convenience of living in communities where our skin color rarely sets off alarm bells. We don’t walk around Brookings or Aberdeen or most of South Dakota seeing people conceal (or maybe not) their initial surprise, suspicion, or hostility toward our skin color. We’re hardly conscious that we’re white in the same way that fish are barely conscious that they are wet. We swim in white soup, with neighbors, police, judges, and elected officials who mostly look like us.
That’s the essence of white privilege. Pat and I, as well as Kayla, don’t live every day with our neighbors looking at us as the Other the way that blacks, Indians, and Arabs in South Dakota do. Not getting “You don’t belong here” vibes everywhere we go makes our lives easier. It means we are less likely to get pulled over and, in extremis, shot by nervous police officers.
Everyone should have access to the American Dream. Kayla, Pat, and I have better access to that dream because of our relatively pale skin. Instead of denying that fact and that injustice, we should do what Kayla says: do the important work of making Black Lives (Indian Lives, Arab Lives…) Matter as much as ours, in practice as well as principle.