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The Context of Character

Martin Luther King Jr. stated in his “I Have A Dream” speech that he hoped that one day his children would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Well, as we learned from the police killing in Memphis, it’s not skin color, or a character’s content, but rather a character’s context that makes the biggest difference.

Like most cases, context has multiple layers. Tyre Nichols was a Black man. Can you imagine the behavior of the police officers if he had been white? Tyre was not seen, I assume, as a person who deserved respect, but as an object, a thing, that could be beaten. These five officers would probably not beat a person to death, not someone like their wives or children, but someone who in their context was made to seem worthless. First deny a person’s dignity, then kill them.

Tyre Nichols did not create the context, the Memphis police culture did by their uniforms, their weapons, their patrol cars, their talk, their silence, and their assignments that gave them the character of impunity. This created a stage for a horror show.

My guess is that the family members and friends of some of these officers were shocked by their loved one’s behavior. They must have looked “out of character.” And maybe they were out of character” or maybe their character reflected their context. As they say, “Most people do what they think is right considering the world they think they live in.”

The Climate of Justice Project is about context. It places a stronger emphasis on the social than on the individual. I know we need to balance the two, but we will never understand police killers, or political extremists, or religious fanatics until we develop a strong sense of the social.

The social—our context—is created and maintained by on-going conversations and behavioral patterns that are based on the stories we are taught and we tell. Some prefer biographies, autobiographies, or a memoir. It’s like watching the behavior of a person in a bottle as though the bottle didn’t exist. The irony of our dominant culture is that we tell stories which create a context that ignores context. If we want to promote a climate of justice, we must listen to the stories of those who experience social injustices.

Some have taken King’s saying about the content of character as an appeal to individualism. Such an interpretation, however, only makes sense in a context of white privilege. Of course, we want to be judged by the content of our character, but for most of us the content of our character depends largely on the justice of our context.

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1 Comment

Sharon G. Thornton
Sharon G. Thornton
Feb 04, 2023

Pointed and right on the mark! Thanks for keeping this conversation going.


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