A Martin Luther King Jr. quote has been making the rounds on social media since civil unrest erupted from protests all over the country in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder-by-cop last Monday: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

But we do ourselves a disservice by reading this line, nodding wisely, and stopping there. It’s far more poignant and cutting in context.

King first said this in an interview with 60 Minutes in 1966, when he was addressing militant factions within the civil rights movement. 

“I contend that the cry of ‘Black power’ is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. And I think we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard,” he told correspondent Mike Wallace. “And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”

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A year later, delivering a commencement speech at Stanford University, King elaborated on this idea: “But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity.”

In context, King’s point isn’t just about the general frustration of the marginalized. It’s a specific condemnation of white America—of ostensible allies who voice passive support so long as they don’t have to sacrifice their “tranquility” in the name of Black “justice, equality, and humanity.”

For years and for decades, we have failed.

According to The Equality of Opportunity Project, a Black child born into the bottom fifth of household incomes has just a 2.5 percent chance of rising to the top fifth, while a white child born into the same circumstance has a 10.6 percent chance of climbing to the top. Black kids born into the top quintile, meanwhile, are almost as likely to fall to the bottom as they are to maintain their economic position. On average, white households are about 20 times wealthier than Black households—and that statistic hasn’t changed in a half-century.

Meanwhile, African Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites. And while surveys show that Blacks and whites use drugs at roughly the same rates, Blacks are about six times more likely to be imprisoned on drug charges. Nationally, Black people are nearly three times as likely as whites to be killed by police, and nearly twice as likely as Hispanics.

America has failed to hear.

The protests this weekend weren’t just about the viral video of Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while three officers stood around and said nothing. Nor were they just about the reality that, without that video, there is zero chance Chauvin and his fellow cops would have been fired and less than zero chance Chauvin would have been charged with third-degree murder.

They were also about Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Philando Castile and Walter Scott and Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland and Botham Jean and Jordan Davis and so many others. They were about decades of criminal-justice policies that targeted Black Americans and decades of economic policies that impoverished them. And they were about a political system that ignores them: on one side, a party that often takes their votes for granted; on the other, a president who revels in racist, incendiary, and atavistic rhetoric.

Mix that with depression-level unemployment, a pandemic that has killed more than 105,000 in four months, and militarized police forces eager to bust heads, and you had a powder keg waiting to blow.

It didn’t take much to set it off.

My point isn’t to excuse or condone the vandalism that took place in downtown Raleigh and elsewhere this weekend. It’s to acknowledge that it didn’t happen in a vacuum.

There were, of course, opportunists who came to the protest not because they cared about the cause but to cause trouble. And there were probably some white supremacists trying to make Black Lives Matter activists look bad; presumably, a BLM marcher didn’t graffiti a white-power sign onto Ruby Deluxe. But there were also people who got swept up in the adrenaline of the moment, perhaps after confrontations with the police, perhaps when built-up frustration and resentment boiled over.

This is the language of the unheard.

Martin Luther King Jr. was talking to me, a comfortable, middle-class white American. He was telling me to do better, to rouse myself from this status quo, grapple with uncomfortable questions, and not just mouth platitudes about equality and humanity but be willing to do the work to lift up those our society has relegated to second-class status.

You don’t have to like what the rioters did. But you should hear what they’re saying.

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at jbillman@indyweek.com. 

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