As I prepare to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday for yet another year, I am forced to reconcile my belief in and hope for the realization of a Beloved Community with the current economic and social realities for millions of Americans in poor communities across this country. Dr. King spoke of the triple evils of poverty, racism and militarism as forms of violence that exist in a “vicious cycle.” As I reflect on the significance of Dr. King’s prophetic wisdom and the relevance of his prophetic teachings on my life, I cannot ignore the triumvirate evils of racial profiling, disproportional arrests and incarceration of people who use and sell drugs in our society.
Dr. King envisioned the Beloved Community as an “achievable goal” that can be realized if society as a whole committed to and “trained in the philosophy and methods of non-violence.” The violence wrought by the drug war on individuals and communities is antithetical to the vision espoused by Dr. King. As I reflect on Dr. King’s legacy, I am disheartened by the over-policing – and in some cases militarization – of black and brown communities, the systemic criminalization of the poor and the lack of compassion towards those cast aside as an “other” in our society. We fail to connect the evils of poverty and racism in fueling our epidemic of mass incarceration. Black Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S population and roughly 13 percent of regular drug consumers. However, black Americans comprise nearly one-third (31.2 percent) of those arrested for drug law violations each year – and more than 40 percent of those currently incarcerated in state or federal prison for drug law violations.
The consequences of a drug conviction are lifelong and devastating, and can include denial of child custody, voting rights, employment, business loans, licensing, student aid, public housing and other public assistance. Such exclusions create a permanent second-class status for millions of Americans and fall overwhelmingly on people of color. Nearly eight percent of black people of voting age are denied the right to vote because of laws that disenfranchise people with felony convictions.
This is a moral failure on our part. We cannot wholeheartedly embrace Dr. King’s vision and truthfully honor his legacy, while at the same time our community continues to be under siege. As Dr. King reminded us, “The way of acquiescence leads to moral and spiritual suicide.”
As I think about the many ways in which I have abdicated my responsibilities as a black woman to protect and promote the legacy of Dr. King and to practice Kingian principles, I must revisit my lack of attention to the harms of mass incarceration, the relegation of millions of black men and women to the status of second class citizens and the systemic stigmatization of individuals who use drugs, individuals who sell drugs, and individuals formerly and currently caught up in the criminal justice system. This year, I am holding myself responsible for my past silence on what can only be considered an emerging genocide of my people. Dr. King gave me the language and set forth a vision and goal to help me create and sustain an inclusive and loving society.
Dr. king provided the blueprint for embodying a spirit of love – in particular, what he called “agape love”, which he described as, “understanding, redeeming goodwill for all.” But in order to answer Dr. King’s call to love all – to experience an “overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless and creative,” a love akin to the “love of God operating in the human heart” – I must first come to terms with the fact that his call to love all means loving those struggling with drugs, those forced to survive in a capitalist society while living in economically marginalized communities, and those who, left to determine their own fate in such conditions, have chosen to live by engaging in the “ underground” economy as subsistence drug sellers.
As I mull over the meaning of Dr. King’s legacy to my life and work, I am developing new approaches and tools to practice his philosophy and give real credence to his life and death by learning to not discriminate between “the worthy and the unworthy people.” I am practicing unconditional love as he encouraged me – to “love others for their sakes.” On this Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I am also including in my commemoration of his birthday a resolution to end my own stigmatization of those who use drugs, those who sell drugs for economic survival and those who are in prisons and jails – brothers, sisters, neighbors and friends who are struggling to shake off unjust labels of criminality and immorality. Labels that perpetuate a sense of segregation and otherness that is clearly incompatible with the vision and goals needed to achieve Dr. King’s Beloved Community. I truly believe – as Dr. King unquestionably did – that people who use or sell drugs are worthy of my love and do have a place in our Beloved Community.