I am in a program for a Masters in Public Administration at the University of Nevada, Reno and the program has helped me better understand and view the choices we have decided to make as a society. Before entering the program I approached politics the way I approached most sciences, believing that there was a single best way, or a single answer to the great questions of how should society organize itself and how we decide who gets what, when, and why. My program has helped me see to what extent our society is built on choices, and how much subjectivity goes into the choices we make. As I read back through the sections I highlighted from Cory Booker’s United, which I read before starting the program, I see how my change in thinking about these questions impacts the way I think about the political questions Booker raises.
Booker quotes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his book to say, “I think America must see riots do not develop out of thin air,” he said. “Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots … social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”
Dr. King’s quote shows the decisions our country had made up to the 1960s and how they led to a situation where riots regarding racial tensions erupted. Society had chosen to organize itself in a way that limited the rights and freedoms of some and protected the status of others. Inequity led to social unrest. Society’s decisions led to its problems.
Our country today faces similar racial tensions, but they are not well understood and racial tensions today are downplayed by those who do not feel the effects of discrimination directly. Our country has decided to continue arresting minority populations at higher levels than white people, and we have decided to segregate ourselves (based on economic mobility) and create neighborhoods of deep poverty. Some of these decisions can be understood by looking at human nature and the tribal tendencies and reactions that we all share, but ultimately we should recognize that intentional or not, it is our decisions that make the world we live in.
As a society, we could decide to criticize those who riot and those who challenge social order and speak out against perceived injustices. This does not just apply to racial minorities who riot, but to those who find such displeasure with the system. We should evaluate the choices we are making and try to better understand what choices on our end create the situation that we dislike socially. Perceived inequities are real to the people who experience them, even if they do not seem to be legitimate to others, and likely do result from real actions taken by real people.
I would argue, and I think Booker would agree, that we must look at those that we condemn and better understand the forces that push them toward riot or despair. From this point we can better understand how our actions fit in with the world that has created challenges and obstacles for so many people. During this process we need to be aware of our own values and judgements, recognizing that the choices we make could be the result of our own prejudice.

Some Thoughts from MLK

In his book, United, Senator Cory Booker speaks about social activism and racial tensions in the United States. He shares some thoughts from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that helped him make sense of the difficult state of race relations in the United States. A passage from Booker with influence from King Jr. reads, ““It’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary decent housing conditions. He condemned riots and violence as “socially destructive and self-defeating,” creating more problems than they solve. But he also called riots “the language of the unheard.””

The Civil Rights Movement is looked back at with fondness from both white and black people in the United States today. We have somewhat romanticized the time period, elevating figures like Dr. King Jr. and remembering demonstrations as solely peaceful. In our minds, freedoms were quickly forthcoming and there were no violent riots and protesters had a clear message and simple demands for fairness.

I have not studied the Civil Rights Movement in depth, but I have a sense that this idealized notion of the movement does not match the reality of the time. We want to look back and believe that all demonstrations were non-violent from the start, but I’m not sure that is the case. This is important because how we look back on that period of time shapes the perceptions we build regarding racial minorities today.

In 2017 there seems to be less of a racially charged atmosphere than existed in 2015 when multiple black men died in police interactions as a result of police officer discretions and interpretations of the situation. The response has been demonstrations, calls for greater recognition of institutional racism, and in some instances riots. What I have seen from our society is a lack of understanding of how we should respond when racial minorities call for action, demonstrate, or even riot. I agree with Dr. King that riots become devolutionary and take the focus off of the issue originally being pursued and limit the discussion that we should be having regarding race relations in the United States, and at the same time I agree with the last part of the quote that Booker shared, that riots are the voice of the unheard. I have seen many marches and demonstrations at the University I attend and across the country, but non of the non-violent demonstrations seem to get much attention, and most often the responses I hear from white people are dubious of the claims of solved racial disparities in our society.

Turning to riots and violence seems like a logical response for a group that has been ignored and criticized when demanding acknowledgement of injustice. I think we ought to ask ourselves not just whether we think a group has a right to demonstrate or riot, but how a group should behave when they perceive that they are being victimized. We all love a peaceful protest, but at what point does a group demand more and allow frustrations to bubble over in the hopes that a message is truly communicated or at least addressed?