By Jeremiah Kim.
There are moments that signal a clear fork in the road as we seek to find answers to life’s enduring questions. In the final days of college, I was putting together a senior thesis on James Baldwin and the Korean War, in which I had written, “I turn to Baldwin because he spoke out unequivocally against U.S. imperialism by drawing on the Black American experience — the only one with any real moral authority in this country.” I often revisit this statement because I have found, in subsequent conversations, that it tends to elicit a host of questions:
Are you implying that only Black people have the authority to speak, and that no other oppressed group has any authority to speak? What about Native Americans, women, the working class, or immigrants? Do their experiences confer no moral authority on them, while somehow it does for Black people? Isn’t that a form of exceptionalism?
My response to these questions boils down to two key points: Oppression, in and of itself, does not confer moral authority on a person or group; struggle does, as does the consistency between words and deeds. Furthermore, I am not judging every individual in any group, whether Black or not, but rather the historical legacy of a certain segment of America that has consistently fought for freedom and equality for all people and has brought this country the closest it has ever been to a more honest, fruitful relationship with its own history and the world.
Looking back, I realize that the word “experience” was perhaps too broad, too ambivalent to evoke what originally compelled me to stake my ground in such a definitive — and in the eyes of some, exclusionary — statement. At the heart of it, I have been drawn to the Black freedom struggle, a distinct moral tradition and stream of political endeavor that has shaped the collective experience of Black America.
Beyond language, I find it important to reflect on this kind of exchange because I believe it speaks to larger worldviews that guide how and where people choose to align themselves in this society. At odds, then, stand two visions of a political future: On one hand, the belief that different historical struggles can be viewed equally and that Americans should form coalitions based on the concerns of their respective group; on the other, the belief that the Black freedom struggle has no equivalent in American history and must serve as the core basis for uniting people of all backgrounds in pursuit of making our country a more human dwelling place.
Where we fall in relation to these positions depends largely on how we answer the question — where does moral authority come from?
Two Notions of Moral Authority
Young people in America today are caught adrift in dark seas of compounding economic, social, psychological, and moral crises with no anchor to ground them and no compass to guide them. Yet it is for this precise reason that I believe many of us are searching for something beyond our immediate experience — something to which our souls will leap and respond with the clear ring of truth, of revelation, of faith. We are searching, as every new generation must, for a source of moral authority in the world around us so that we may discover our own true purpose for our lives. But this is difficult to find in a culture overflowing with individualism and identity politics, where it is easier to think only in reaction to the immediate present, and not in relation to the broader tides of human choices and strivings that have carried us to where we stand now.
From college campuses to social media, we are taught to hold the assumption that oppression endows a people with moral authority. It is this assumption which leads to the belief that various historical experiences can be equated, which in turn creates a dangerously shallow illusion of political unity among various identity groups without a genuine grounding in history. When I went to college, I was taught to base my activism on my identity as an Asian American, and to then engage in “coalition-building,” which entailed reaching out to other identity-based organizations so that we could mutually “show up” for each other whenever one group was organizing a rally or protest. We internalized the “you do you” attitude of identity politics in our political activism as well as our personal relationships with one another — you do your thing over there and I will support you when necessary, and I will do my thing over here and you can support me when necessary. At the root of this framework was the assumption that any one of us could be trusted to speak with authority on the issues pertaining to our struggle — with no serious discussion on what that struggle actually was, or whether it was the right struggle. This framework carries through onto the stage of national politics: the innumerable nonprofits and NGOs that dominate the social justice landscape today lock people into flat identity categories while churning out ever-shifting guidelines on how to be a good ally to more oppressed identities; meanwhile, liberal politicians campaign to collect the support of identity groups like badges, on the assumption that each group automatically possesses its own authority because it has experienced some degree of discrimination or hardship.
But this notion of moral authority is wrong; it fails to deal with history and life beyond the surface of our mainstream culture; it reduces large swathes of people to abstract categories; and it denies any faith that human beings are capable of rising above the uninspired, frankly immoral standards which currently prevail in our society. James Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time:
“This past, the Negro’s past, of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation… this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful… That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth—and, indeed, no church—can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable… It demands great force and great cunning continually to assault the mighty and indifferent fortress of white supremacy, as Negroes in this country have done so long. It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate. The Negro boys and girls who are facing mobs today come out of a long line of improbable aristocrats—the only genuine aristocrats this country has produced.”
Contrary to popular assumptions today, moral authority comes from having faced the absolute darkest currents of oppression and evil — and having struggled still to insist upon the essential worth and continuation of human life, struggled to create a human identity and a more just world full of dignity out of that darkness. It is not merely suffering, but the choice to respond to suffering by struggling to change society which defines the authority of an individual or a people. If we look back upon American history through this lens, we must arrive at the conclusion that there is something incredibly unique about the Black struggle for freedom that has no parallel, no equivalent to any other struggle or endeavor that has taken place on these shores. Peering back through centuries, we find it is the great masses of Black people in America who have had the most intimate knowledge of white supremacy and capitalist exploitation; and have played the most progressive, decisive role across multiple political movements in the effort to realize a transformative vision that could humanize the nation as a whole.
This truth is plainly evident when we examine the ferment of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In Black Reconstruction in America, W.E.B. Du Bois outlined how, leading up to the Civil War, poor immigrants increasingly sought to join the white upper classes in exploiting their fellow laborers, whereas slaves and freedmen were united in directing their struggle toward the broader uplift of all Americans. It was this latter vision of freedom which compelled hundreds of thousands of slaves to withdraw their labor from the South’s besieged economy and join forces with the Union Army at a pivotal moment of the war — thus deciding the fate of the existential conflict that had engulfed the nation. A century later, Martin Luther King Jr. bore witness to the elevated character of the Black masses, who grasped the Civil Rights Movement’s philosophy of nonviolence as a dignified method of struggle for injecting new human values into an America rife with the violence of war, poverty, and racism. These movements stand as an indisputable testament to the possibilities of what people can create out of the devastating reality of America’s history. Consequently, anyone who claims to care about this country must answer the question of how they relate to the Black freedom struggle; must decide whether they see this tradition as their inheritance to continue. Because while every marginalized group in America has engaged in some kind of struggle for equality, only one group has led the charge armed with the philosophy and worldview needed to touch the hearts of people and reshape the very foundations of the country.
The Basis for Unity
In taking the position that all struggles are not equal, I know there is a risk of sounding narrow-minded. One might ask out of genuine concern, How can you possibly build a coalition if you invalidate the experience of others so resolutely? But this kind of response avoids the deeper question of what a political coalition should be based upon, reinforcing the prevailing American assumption that people should engage in politics according to the interests pertaining to themselves or their group — an assumption that sows seeds of division rather than laying the foundations for a durable, principled unity. For example, immigrant rights activists today often frame their idea of progress and leverage their moral authority in our political and cultural landscape through the lens of their victimization as immigrants. This has led to a false struggle for acceptance into an unjust social order, in which immigrants repudiate their own experiences of oppression and traditions of resistance so long as they remain blind to the central role of the Black struggle in America. Any attempt to build a coalition with the Black community on these grounds will fail because immigrants have not grappled with the contradictions and historical forces that define this country in its totality; at a fundamental level, they have not challenged their own aspirations to become like white America.
Going a step further, there is the increasingly widespread assumption that a coalition which does center the Black experience should be solely based on the fact that Black people have endured the most oppression in America. Proceeding from this assumption, non-Black people believe that the best they can do to support Black people is to pack their bodies at protests or donate money to an organization they have only just heard of. This is a comfortable position for many liberals and progressives because it allows them to keep Black America at a distance by objectifying Black people into abject victims of oppression. But this kind of coalition is also doomed to fall apart because it is purely driven by negative reactions of guilt and outrage, rather than by a positive vision for the future grounded in the immense contributions of the Black freedom struggle to humanity. The prevalence of this kind of coalition today shows that we have yet to grasp the full meaning of Baldwin’s declaration that:
“The price of this [country’s] transformation is the unconditional freedom of the Negro; it is not too much to say that he, who has been so long rejected, must now be embraced, and at no matter what psychic or social risk. He is the key figure in his country, and the American future is precisely as bright or as dark as his.”
As a participant and thinker of the Black freedom struggle, Baldwin understood that the liberation of all Americans was inextricably bound up in Black people’s historic struggles for liberation. He understood that the Civil Rights Movement, in its fullest expression of righteous truth, was challenging those principal forces of oppression which convulsed in the heart of America to encircle the globe. In the American context, then, the Black freedom struggle must be understood as the struggle for humanity itself. It is an inherently inclusive, rather than exclusive, project — one that is wholly unique, but also universal enough to serve as the channel for Americans of all backgrounds to forge a new conception of themselves in genuine unity with humanity at large.
This tradition is vitally relevant for immigrants, since it is Black America which has historically developed the deepest bonds of solidarity with the anti-colonial movements of Africa, Asia, and Latin America from within the United States. How many Korean Americans know, for instance, that Du Bois was an ardent advocate and organizer for peace during the Korean War — to such an extent that he was criminalized and silenced by the U.S. government? We have the right to know and be proud of those people in our history, on both sides of the ocean, who chose to struggle for peace and freedom, even when it meant bearing the cruel and violent opposition of the most powerful military force in history. We have the right to define our heritage in clear relation to the moral authority of the freedom fighters of Black America and the masses of people in our homelands who struggled against imperialism, rather than through the distorting mirror of the West. We have every right — and indeed every reason — to unite with the Black community on the basis of this shared history of struggle which resounds all over the world.
Looking for Leaders
By entering into a discussion on authority, one inevitably raises the question of leadership. And I am saying that we, who are so unschooled in the historical depth of this country, should take leadership from the Black community. But this statement runs into several misconceptions: One is the notion that all Black people have moral authority, and that non-Black people should dogmatically follow any Black person or group that claims to be revolutionary. Black studies courses in universities today are awash with endless readings on small collectives and obscure thinkers whose sole claim to fame is their professed radicalism and the legitimacy bestowed by academia. On the other side of the coin, we are constantly bombarded by Black celebrity activists whom the media and corporations prop up as authorities simply because they are being interviewed on television or have a blue checkmark on their social media account. It is a flat contradiction that we look to these figures as representatives of Black America’s revolutionary legacy, even as they implicitly uphold the false authority of the very same elite institutions and corrupt system that we decry for oppressing and misleading people.
Another misconception is a uniform aversion to leadership in general, derived from a desire to visibly distance oneself from the disgraceful figures at the head of our country. In practice, this aversion results in a twisted arrogance cloaked in humility and a performative culture of validating people rather than challenging them to grow. One observes this tendency in many college social justice organizations and white leftist groups, where activists fixate on non-hierarchical structures and decentralized movements rather than focus on clarifying the basic ideas and principles they stand upon.
What both of these attitudes fail to grasp is that the ultimate test of any leader’s or group’s moral authority is their connection to the greater masses of people who are the principal agents of a revolution. The moral authority of figures like King, Baldwin, or Du Bois, then, came from their ability to reflect and inspire the hearts and minds of the masses who produced them, and in whose lives they remained intimately, unwaveringly involved. Simply put, they loved the people, and the people loved them. In turn, the many thousands of ordinary men, women, and children who embraced the revolutionary responsibilities of fighting courageously to “save the soul of America” from the clutches of war, poverty, and racism achieved their own unshakable moral authority. Our generation has been miseducated to such an extent that we cannot imagine this alternative model of authority, which Baldwin witnessed in the relationship between King and a generation of students in the South who accepted him as their leader:
“What the elders have that they can offer the young is evidence, in their own flesh, of defeats endured, disasters passed and triumphs won. This is their moral authority, which, however mystical it may sound, is the only authority that endures; and it is through dealing with this authority that the young catch their first glimpse of what has been called the historical perspective. But this does not, and cannot exist, either privately or publicly, in a country that has told itself so many lies about its history, that, in sober fact, has yet to excavate its history from the rubble of romance… And this is certainly one of the reasons that the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., means so much to these young people, even to those who know nothing about Gandhi and are not religious and ask hard questions about nonviolence. King is a serious man because the doctrine that he preaches is reflected in the life he leads.”
As we witness signs of crisis erupting in every corner of our society, young Americans of all backgrounds must recognize and honor the time-proven truth that the Black community has consistently led America’s most progressive movements for social change in the face of centuries of cruelty and hypocrisy. We must see beyond the spectacle of social media and celebrity culture to recognize that the poor and working class sections of Black America, with their long-standing institutions of faith and education, have organically produced the leaders needed to clarify and organize people around the vision of past movements. Leaders and thinkers like King, Du Bois, and Baldwin demand our utmost respect and attention because they lived according to the principles they professed, projecting profound new ideas for American society while earning the trust of the people who could struggle for those ideas. We must look to history and seek to understand the example set by these figures so that we can gain a concrete frame of reference for recognizing the kind of leadership that America needs today.
By accepting the moral authority and leadership of this tradition, we move toward a truer understanding of this country and what our role can be in it. Any movement that seeks to genuinely transform America must involve the joint efforts of a greater alliance of peoples who come to be grounded in a shared understanding of history and thus united by common principles. Instead of simply reacting to the horrific injustices inflicted upon Black America from a place of patronizing pity or panic-stricken guilt, we must realize that our responsibility is to learn from and be humbled by the Black freedom struggle. Only by immersing ourselves in this rich legacy can we truly reorient our lives toward working with the Black community to end injustice and help usher in the better world that every human being deserves to be raised in.
Our generation faces a historic task and a great moral choice. On one hand lies America, as we have been taught to inhabit it: a decadent society that cultivates self-centered reaction, division, and fear through manufactured identities and movements, descending further and further into a profound breakdown of meaning. On the other hand waits another America, which can only be glimpsed through the heroic struggles of past generations of Black freedom fighters and their visions of a better world. Here, caught at the center of a storm we were never prepared to weather, let us cast our anchor down in the place we were never expected to see.