• Conversations on Diversity

    A blog by Eboo Patel, Mary Ellen Giess and Tony Banout that looks at identity and diversity issues from multiple angles.


Critique Can Be a Cage

Why the river of human freedom ought to be our guiding metaphor.

January 16, 2020

Michelle Alexander is best known for her monumental book against mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow. But in an essay published around the time of the highly divisive Brett Kavanaugh hearings, a time when critiques of patriarchy and white supremacy were a regular part of network news broadcasts, Alexander said she didn’t want to be known principally for being against anything. Critique can too easily become a cage.

In fact, Alexander questioned the entire frame of “the resistance,” writing, “While it can be necessary for survival and to prevent catastrophic harm, it can also tempt us to set our sights too low and to restrict our field of vision … leading us to forget our ultimate purpose and place in history.”

Instead, she considered herself part of the long river of human freedom and dignity. American history could be viewed through this lens. There were the people who sought to make real the principles of equality and justice for all, and those who opposed them. The momentum was on our side, and we should steward that momentum so that it included as many people as possible in the river of possibility.

The metaphor of the river comes from the late, great civil rights leader Vincent Harding. I met Vincent once, at a conference in Denver. He didn’t have a formal speaking role, and yet it was his comment from the floor that changed everything. He stood up and said, “I live in an America that does not yet exist.” He went on to detail what a genuinely multicultural democracy would look like and feel like and noted the moments in history -- from the Declaration of Independence to the civil rights era -- that brought us to the cusp of that possibility. Then, turning slowly so that he could face the entire room, somehow making eye contact with each individual, he said, “We are all citizens of this America that does not yet exist, and all of us have the joyous responsibility for bringing it into being.”

A hush fell upon the gathering. There was much to critique in the historical moment in which Vincent spoke -- the American war in Iraq was especially bloody at the time -- and yet Vincent had not called us to be against anything or anyone. He wanted the river of human freedom to include every human being in its flow.

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Eboo Patel

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