01/22/2013 06:19 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

We Must Act

"We must act," President Obama proclaimed in his inauguration speech, "knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today's victories will be only partial..."

Indeed. I am ever more reminded, as I begin to co-teach a course titled Cultural Diversity in Schools, that justice is not a word... it is an action.

We can analyze issues of social justice, examine it historically, sociologically, politically. We can gain critical insights through careful analyses of texts, of practices, of structures. This "academicizing" of social justice is the process of analysis rather than action and central to what we do as academics.

I, for example, plan to academicize what "diversity" means in our K-12 classrooms, as I want my students to better understand issues of equity, justice, and opportunity in our educational system and what can and cannot be done by classroom teachers, school leaders, and policymakers. This lays the foundation for how to think about the complex and contested issues of diversity in our schools and society.

But it is not social justice. Justice for me requires action, however imperfect and partial. Justice demands that we accomplish real goals for real people. Such on-the-ground actions rarely get noticed, often get waylaid, and are almost never completely successful.

But they are at the heart of the just society. Martin Luther King Jr., in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, argued that direct action was critical to pushing beyond comfortable "ideals" in order to "create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood."

Yet it is here that King was also the most disappointed. "I must confess," he continued, " that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate...who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'...Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."

Those last words are biting. They are biting, perhaps, exactly because it is all too easy in the college classroom to have shallow understanding and lukewarm acceptance from "people of good will." I am thus wary that what I can accomplish in my course has any direct linkage to anything outside of it. I can hope, and I can prod, and I can inform. But until and unless my students take up their ideas and ideals through concrete, meaningful and sustainable actions, all we have are words. They are important, but not enough.