"You have a strong sense of justice.” —David Owen
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. —Micah 6:8 (NIV)
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice… --Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail (https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html)
(Written June 1, 2020)
Perhaps the best compliment of my life was paid by my postdoctoral adviser, David Owen, sometime in 2012. The circumstances around it were not important or serious, especially looking back from the lens of 2020. Essentially, I had given a short seminar about my project, and only one person from our lab had bothered to attend.
Science work culture in England—at least in the groups I joined—was very different to that in America. Scientists there seemed more independent in their actions. They sometimes did not identify so much as a “group member” but rather as a solitary scientist who sometimes collaborated with others. They didn’t have much use for hierarchy. Many aspects of this independent streak really resonated with me, but I always believed group members should support and celebrate each other when it mattered. Giving talks and publishing papers are a big deal in research; it means your science story is ready to be shared and discussed. I always attended my lab mates’ talks and celebrated their papers.
So when most of my lab mates, even those I considered friends, didn’t bother to come… I was pissed. I thought people were being jerks, and I let everybody know it, prompting a wider discussion with David about how people treat each other. His comment caught me completely off guard, partly because the English are not well-known for giving compliments. (Maybe it wasn’t a compliment. I was too mad to consider nuance that day.) But nevertheless, his observation stuck with me.
I’ve had many years to consider why. I think it’s because I hope I have a strong sense of justice. As a child, I was taught justice is important. Justice is an important concept in both secular and religious or spiritual life. Micah 6:8 is a beautiful verse, and for me the second half still carries a worthy aspirational message about how humans should treat each other (regardless of any religious affiliation). We can all aspire to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly in our lives. I try to be just, and I want others to be just. I want people to be just to their family and friends and colleagues, but I also want people to identify injustice to others and stop it.
I have often failed at being just. I form opinions too quickly. I can be overly critical and cynical about people. I have discovered how wrong I was many times over. I have been reminded through my own prejudices that I was unjust. But David’s comment resonated because I really believe it is good to be just. For me personally, it doesn’t always come naturally. I never really had to work hard to be “smart", but I have to work at being just. And I still believe it is a worthy goal.
I thought about this today for a more important reason. The early summer air is thick with injustice in this country. Protests have erupted because of a long history of injustice towards black people. Black men and women have been killed too often for living their lives, intersecting at a crucial moment with someone who killed them. Protesting has been messy throughout history, but white people often prefer a clean and pristine reality. White people like “good" protests or a “good" revolution” (the American Revolution in Hamilton; French Revolution in Les Miserables) but only in retrospect. Too many white people lament the looting and rioting while ignoring the centuries of pain and rage experienced by people who have been oppressed. It’s easy to criticize damage to buildings and property, and I don’t “like" it. Of course I wish there was another way. But human beings are more important than things. It’s easy to tell other people to peacefully protest. All of it is easy for those who don’t get assaulted or killed while jogging or driving or sitting in their home—for doing everyday things. Dr. King warned us long ago about the white “moderate” who cared more order instead of real justice. The treatment of black people is unjust, it has always been unjust, and it must stop. It should have stopped a long time ago.
I wrote this today because it is time to say we have been unjust and we are still unjust. We must do better, even when it is painful or inconvenient or “rude”. But we can’t stop at just saying it, although it is an important first step. We must live and fight for justice. We have to do meaningful things to stop injustice, like prosecuting and imprisoning those who wrongly kill black people. We have to vote for politicians who promote justice. We have to teach our children (and sometimes remind our parents) what happened in the past, and why it is wrong. We have to support black causes and people and let them speak while we listen. We have to protest and support protesters so our leaders see and hear and remember the government belongs to us. We have to be open to training and learning to show us how to fight discrimination in our hiring, recruiting, and evaluation/retention processes. And the list goes on...
Dr King once said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. No one cares about my ill-attended science talk a long time ago. But we should all care about justice, and we should all work to bend the arc more quickly towards justice. That long-ago-maybe-a-compliment reminds me even today how other people see what we do and how we act and what is important to us. And we should all work and fight to promote a strong sense of justice in our homes, schools, labs, work places, communities, and countries.