By Russell Johnson for Martin Luther King Day, 2018
Even as an elementary school student, I knew Martin Luther King Jr. took a stand for integration. But what “integration” meant for King is something I’ve only recently begun to understand.
Integration must first be distinguished from inversion. King was not interested in merely transferring power from whites to blacks while keeping the exploitative power structure unchanged. An unjust society cannot be integrated, regardless of the color of those in charge.
Integration must also be distinguished from desegregation. Desegregation is merely the removal of the legal and social prohibitions that keep minorities out of certain spaces and activities. It is a matter of laws and policies alone and does not reach down to the way we listen, the way we care, and the way we dream. King insisted that desegregation was a step in the right direction, but only a step, writing, “We do not have to look very far to see the pernicious effects of a desegregated society that is not integrated. It leads to ‘physical proximity without spiritual affinity.’ It gives us a society where men are physically desegregated and spiritually segregated, where elbows are together and hearts are apart… It leaves us with the stagnant equality of sameness rather than a constructive equality of oneness.”
But what does King mean by a “constructive equality of oneness”? To understand, we have to distinguish integration from assimilation. The difference is subtle but profound—it’s the difference between “blacks and whites must be integrated” and “black people must be integrated into white society.” Assimilation is when one group sacrifices some of their uniqueness to fit the expectations of another group. Integration is when members of different communities work together in mutual recognition to envision and enact a better world. Assimilation is one-sided, homogenizing, and subtractive; integration is cooperative, transforming, and creative. Assimilation is adding a little baking soda to the dough and hoping you don’t taste it. Integration is mixing baking soda with vinegar and watching what happens.
To insist on assimilation is to maintain that we’ve got it figured out and anyone who wants to join can only do so if they act like us. It rests on the assumption that when two cultures meet, one culture has to dominate and the other culture has to adapt. This assumption is at the heart of colonialism, though many nations that don’t establish colonies still act on it. King sought to challenge this assumption not only in domestic policy but abroad, calling for an “integrated foreign policy” rooted in mutual respect rather than national narcissism.
In America, the only demand assimilation makes on whites is that they recognize and respect minorities when minorities act like whites (or like how whites think they should act). Integration, however, demands that whites continually reconsider whether our habituated ways of acting are conducive to justice and peace, and that we reconsider in dialogue with members of all minority groups. Assimilation asks “Why can’t they just act like us?” Integration asks “What are the barriers that are keeping us apart, keeping us from working together to find new ways to thrive together?”