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Thursday, August 29, 2013

No, MLK Didn't Want a 'Colorblind' Society

King Memorial in Washington
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Martin Luther King Jr's "I have a dream" speech is considered one of the greatest speeches in American political rhetoric, yet conservatives tend to abridge it down to that one sentence. Charlie Pierce explains why:

There it is. That's the great loophole. It is an otherwise unremarkable sentiment given the context of the entire address, but, for the people who almost certainly would have lined up on the other side of the movement in 1963, it subsequently has been used as an opening through which all manner of historically backsliding mischief has come a'wandering in, from "reverse discrimination" to Allan Bakke, to what is going on today with the franchise in too many places, to the reaction to the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman. Modern conservatives have used that line to conscript Dr. King into their ideology, now that he's dead and unable to speak for himself. It's the only line in the speech that they remember.
Conservatives have in recent years taken to trying to coopt King as one of their own and that one sentence is pretty much the whole of the evidence for their case. Conservatives see him through the lens of what Cornell West calls "the Santa Clausification" of Dr. King -- i.e., King was a magical figure who came one day and ended racism, then was tragically taken from us by someone who didn't understand. Never mind that King advocated for a minimum guaranteed income for all Americans. Never mind that he died supporting the collective bargaining rights of striking sanitation workers. Never mind that he opposed the Vietnam War and supported the Voting Rights Act. Ignore all that and concentrate only one that one short sentence from one speech and, if you squint and cock your head just right, you can almost believe King was as conservative as your average teabagging frootloop.


Except that conservatives misunderstand what even that one sentence means -- whether deliberately or because they've gotten so used to ignoring the sentence's context is irrelevant. Republicans look at that sentence and read all sorts of BS into it; that King would oppose Affirmative Action and "reverse racism." That he wanted the concept of race to just disappear.

If you want an example of this, check out the National Review's Jonah Goldberg's weekly syndicated column from the LA Times. In it, he won't shut up about how King wanted a colorblind society. But King never advocated for a colorblind society, with good reason. A colorblind society would not keep records comparing white unemployment numbers to those of African-Americans. The racial breakdown of prison populations would not be tracked. Life expectancy, poverty rates, number of uninsured, number of police stops, redlining, disparities in education, etc. would all be complete mysteries in a colorblind society.

In short, the sort of society Goldberg -- and the rest of the right -- pretends King advocated is a society that would protect institutional racism with enforced ignorance and would maintain a status quo that benefits the powerful over the downtrodden. You need to see race to see racism, so those who benefit from racism would very much rather you didn't see race.

It also explains just how deeply conservatives misunderstand the legacy of race and racism. People like Goldberg pretend that racism is the problem and the only problem. If you declare racism over with, then that solves everything. But it doesn't. The legacy of racism lingers on in the damage it has done to generations of Americans.

If you could literally end racism right now -- kill it off completely in people's hearts -- people would still suffer because of racism. Income inequality wouldn't automatically disappear. Disparities in opportunity wouldn't just fall away. Institutional racism has pushed an unforgivable number of people to the bottom of the economic and social ladder and the Republican misunderstanding of King's message tells them that we should just leave them there, because correcting these injustices with things like Affirmative Action would be wrong. Obviously this is something Dr. King would never have agreed with in a million years, even if ending racism were the entirety of his message and his vision.

When conservatives say they want a colorblind society, keep all this in mind. A colorblind society is blind to racism and would do nothing to correct it. In fact, a colorblind society would consider acknowledgement of racial disparity to be, in itself, racist. Republicans misunderstand Dr. King not because they're so interested in fighting racism, but because they're so interested in ignoring it and maintaining the status quo.

If that weren't the case, they'd be making a different argument.


[photo via Wikimedia Commons]

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