Martin Luther King Jr. on Human Solidarity, An Inescapable Network of Mutuality, and the Dangers of Un-interrogated “Whiteness”

Martin Luther King Jr.In Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s essay, “Nonviolence and Racial Justice,” he observes that true peace requires “the presence of some positive force—justice, good will and brotherhood.” In today’s world, this sense of solidarity and concern for the good of others—the poor, the incarcerated, the immigrant, the unemployed, those with little or no access to healthcare and so forth—seems to have diminished significantly.

In contrast, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was animated by a strong sense of human solidarity, believing that as those created in God’s image we belong to one another. In addition, Dr. King’s belief in human solidarity, the inherent dignity of all human beings, and the need to work toward creating a world where all humans can flourish compelled him to action. As we know, he chose the path of non-violent direct action and protest, convinced that this was the path most consonant with his Christian faith. Of course this was not an easy path. He received criticism from black activists as well as white society. His protests even landed him in jail and ultimately cost him his life.

In Dr. King’s famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” he writes, “‘I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.’ Then a few lines later he continues, “[m]oreover, 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 anywhere within its bounds.”

In what  follows I address what critical race theorists and sociologists refer to as white advantage, white privilege, white habitus, or the “invisibility” and normativity of whiteness.  My hope is that by interrogating whiteness we might become aware of and uproot racial prejudices in our own thinking and awaken in ourselves a sense of solidarity and genuine concern for human flourishing for all.

Unlike people of color, whites (focusing primarily here on America’s history) are rarely if ever confronted with their phenotypic differences (especially skin color) in ways that severely and negatively impact the course of their lives. Moreover, very few white people have given extensive thought to the advantages they have simply because they are white. For example, being white has not resulted in their being denied entrance into public spaces such as restaurants, swimming pools, social clubs, housing districts, and public schools. Nor have they had to endure constant racial profiling by police officers, routine “tracking” and surveillance by security guards when shopping, or regularly having others clutch at their purses when they enter a crowded elevator together. In contrast, people of color daily deal with these and multiple other confrontations.

Black intellectuals have described the disparities in lived experience between whites and blacks in various ways. W. E. B. Du Bois employs the metaphors of the “veil” and “double-consciousness” to describe the complex, intertwined relationship of blacks and whites in America. The African American must navigate two worlds, the “black” world and the “white” world: “two worlds separate yet bound together like those double stars that, bound for all time, whirl around each other separate yet one.”[1] If we combine the multivalent figures of the veil and double-consciousness, we see that Du Bois was acutely aware of the paradox of the African American’s world. That is, the black person was both socially and politically invisible (existing behind a veil) and yet hyper-visible given the negative meanings imputed to his or her skin color—meanings which carried significant social, legal, political, and personal implications and prevented African Americans from flourishing as human beings and fully participatory citizens.

In keeping with King’s vision and legacy, I offer the following reflections on whiteness and our ongoing need to interrogate our socialized ways of being so that we, like King, might become “cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities” and commit ourselves to struggling against us/them, insider/outsider, deserving/undeserving (citizen) and myriad other false dichotomies.   Given that as humans we are complex social, psychological, intellectual, emotional, embodied beings,[2] I draw special attention to how spatial and social (re)segregation and accompanying socially conditioned practices contributes to and furthers white advantage, thus creating significant barriers for the development of interracial empathy and genuine solidarity.

In his recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, theologian James H. Cone critiques Reinhold Niebuhr for his failure to address America’s appalling racist history. Cone cites a passage from novelist, playwright, poet, and social critic, James Baldwin (1924–1987) that is worth repeating. (Baldwin and Niebuhr had been engaged in an ongoing dialogue about these issues.) Regarding white people, Baldwin states: “‘I don’t mean to say that white people are villains or devils or anything like that,’ but what ‘I do mean to say is this: that the bulk of the white […] Christian majority in this country has exhibited a really staggering level of irresponsibility and immoral washing of the hands, you know. […] I don’t suppose that […] all the white people in Birmingham are monstrous people. But they’re mainly silent people, you know. And that is a crime in itself’.”[3] As many contend (including myself), this white silence and lack of willingness to confront America’s violence against and exploitation of African Americans and the enduring legacy and consequences of its racist practices and policies prevents America from a true reconciliation with its past—a reconciliation required in order to achieve solidary among its citizens and to avoid repeating past patterns of oppression and violence.

Although Jim Crow laws and policies such as racially restrictive covenants are no longer enforceable, our schools and housing divisions continue the legacy of segregation. The fact that such segregation still divides our schools, neighborhoods, and parishes is a strong indicator that systemic and structural inequality and white advantage remains a serious social problem in our society. As Alex Mikulich observes, drawing upon work by sociologists John Powell, Douglas Massey, and Nancy Denton, “housing location is critical to predicting access to quality public education, development of personal wealth, employment, health and safety, democratic participation, transportation, and child care. The national extent of white hyper-segregation cannot happen without the participation of the majority of white people and institutions, including whites who claim good intentions toward people of color.”[4]

One’s “spatial” location with respect to housing is closely connected to one’s potential for upward mobility in the socio-economic sphere. How so? One’s residence significantly determines the educational opportunities for one’s children. With housing and schooling (re)segregation we again see a continuation and reproduction of structural racism carried on by white practices (e.g. real estate practices and unofficial “red-lining”) that have become normalized and which remain largely un-interrogated by whites themselves. Although it has been over fifty years since the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that segregated schools were unconstitutional, our schools today are as segregated as ever.  As Gary Orfield explains in his study, “Schools More Separate” (2001), “white students remain the most segregated from all other races in their schools. Whites on average attend schools where less than 20 percent of the students are from all other racial and ethnic groups combined. On average, blacks and Latinos attend schools with 53% to 55% students of their own group.”[5]

As Mikulich highlights, there are significant overlaps between Dr. King’s vision and the Catholic social teaching. For example, both emphasize the preferential option for the poor, the interconnectedness of human beings as God’s image bearers, and the importance of and call to human solidarity. Whether official encyclicals or pastoral letters of note, Catholic social teaching presents moral, spiritual, and socio-economic principles that appeal not only to Catholics but to all people of goodwill concerned to promote social justice and the common good of all. Archbishop Francis Cardinal George, for example, penned a beautiful and timely pastoral letter entitled, Dwell in my Love, delivered on the 33rd anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (April 4, 2001). The title of the letter is taken from Scripture, viz., from the Gospel of St. John 15:7–10.[6] In his letter, Archbishop George recalls his own first experiences of the reality of racism, or rather his experience of seeing his African American friends experience racism under Jim Crow laws. He had been on a summer trip in Memphis and was not allowed to sit with his African American friends on a bus. This very different experience of “space” made him aware of his advantaged social position as a white man. The every day way that he occupied space freely and non-confrontationally had been part of his world for as long as he could remember; it was taken for granted and was never intellectually scrutinized. However, his African American friends experience the world quite differently. They experienced a lack of spatial occupation on a regular basis and were daily reminded of why such spatial exclusions existed.

As his letter unfolds, Archbishop George highlights what he calls “spatial racism.” As he explains,

“Spatial racism refers to patterns of metropolitan development in which some affluent whites create racially and economically segregated suburbs or gentrified areas of cities, leaving the poor — mainly African Americans, Hispanics and some newly arrived immigrants — isolated in deteriorating areas of the cities and older suburbs. […] Spatial racism creates a visible chasm between the rich and the poor, and between white people and people of color. It marks a society that contradicts both the teachings of the Church and our declared national value of equality of opportunity.”

Whites tend to be unaware of this chasm or see it as “natural,” “normal,” or just the “way it is with different groups congregating together;” in contrast, people of color are acutely aware of this divide.

In addition, whether speaking of literal physical space or more figuratively as moral, intellectual, and social space, this separation between whites and people of color—a separation that all too often has resulted in economic, social, and other benefits for whites—makes it difficult for many whites to empathize with the experiences and frustrations of people of color.[7] Moreover, it makes practicing solidarity nearly impossible.

To be clear, class in also a significant factor in this discussion, as poor whites experience the world quite differently than whites who occupy the upper middle and higher rungs of the socio-economic sphere (the latter of which are my primary addressees under the generic heading “whites”). As is the case with other groups, whites are socially conditioned. For example, they are socialized through the spaces of privilege they occupy—their more or less all white schools, neighborhoods, parishes, etc.—to see their experience—their “white habitus” as normal, natural, and even the standard for all things intellectual, moral, cultural, and so forth.

The term “white habitus” comes from sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva.[8] According to Bonilla-Silva, “white habitus” is “a racialized, uninterrupted socialization process that conditions and creates whites’ tastes, perceptions, feelings and emotions and their views on racial matters.”[9] As Mikulich explains, white habitus is cultivated “within a separate residential and cultural life that fosters a white culture of solidarity and negative views about nonwhites.”[10] White habitus involves both position and practice. Here position refers to social geography, spatial location, and possessing socio-economic dominance and power broadly speaking. Practice speaks to “the ways that whites are socialized [via families, institutions, social narratives, etc.]to perceive and act within the world.”[11] White culture not only actively shapes and forms the largely segregated social landscape or geography of residential and educational but is it also conditioned by such segregation (morally, intellectually, etc.).

Here are few examples from ethnographic studies as presented by Mikulich.[12] White descriptions of their own lives and experiences “within white gated communities” indicates that “white self-perceptions of  ‘niceness’ and fear of others” are often employed as ways to “justify living in a residential development that excludes racial others.”[13]   In addition, by describing themselves as “nice” and perpetuating a fear of others attached to certain geographical spaces, neighborhoods etc., whites “inscribe racist assumptions into the landscape.”[14]Operating within the “white habitus,” the white neighborhood is perceived as “normal” and evaluated as “safe,” whereas the black neighborhood is “racially segregated” and less “safe” or even “dangerous.”

In short, “white habitus and white hyper-segregation” not only prevent the kinds of meaningful interracial interaction and relationships required for genuine solidarity and empathy but they also—if not confronted and altered—reproduce and perpetuate racialized ways of thinking, being, and acting (as well as unjust social structures). Confronting white myths, white advantage, and the ways in which we are complicit in seeing the world and others through our own racialized “white habitus” is extremely challenging personally and communally and is (in my experience at least) often not well received. However, if we fail to engage these issues that have been part of the social fabric of our country from its very beginning and “continue past patterns of silence,” then we open ourselves to the possibility of once again confirming James Baldwin’s analysis that whites remain “trapped in a history they don’t understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it” (James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, New York: Vintage, 1993, p. 8).[15]




[1] W. E. B. Du Bois. “Beyond the Veil in a Virginia Town,” in W. E. B. Du Bois: Against Racism: Unpublished Essays, Papers, Addresses, 1887­1961,  edited by Herbert Aptheker. Originally published 1897 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1985), 49.

[2] This list is not meant to be exhaustive.

[3] As cited in James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 55.

[4] Mikulich, “Where Y’at Race, Whiteness, and Economic Justice?” in The Almighty and the Dollar: Reflections on Economic Justice for All, edited by Mark J. Allman (Winona, MN: Anselm Academic, 2012), 207. Significant aspects of and ideas for this post are modeled after and taken from Mikulich’s chapter.

[5] Gary Orfield, “Schools More Separate: Consequences of a Decade of Resegregation,”

[6] “If you dwell in me, and my words dwell in you, ask whatever you want and you
shall have it. This is how my Father is glorified; you are to bear fruit in plenty and so be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Dwell in my love. If you heed my commands, you will dwell in my love, as I have heeded my Father’s commands and dwell in his love.”

[7] Social scientists call this lack of empathy “social alexithymia.” As Joe Feagin explains, social alexithymia is the “significant lack of cross-racial empathy” (Racist America: Roots, Current Realities and Future Reparations, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2010), 89.

[8] See, for example, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, 2nd ed. (Landham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2006), 103.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Mikulich, “Where Y’at Race, Whiteness, and Economic Justice?”, p 210.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] As cited in Mikulich, ibid., 211.

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