The betrayal of Martin Luther King
Those who claim to be his heirs are reviving racial thinking.
‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.’
Sixty years ago today, Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC and delivered those immortal words, the soaring peroration of his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, to hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the sweltering heat at the March on Washington.
Uttered at the high point of the civil-rights movement, King’s words gave a profound moral clarity and urgency to black Americans’ struggle for full citizenship and against racial injustice. But they also spoke to something universal, about the necessity of rejecting racial thinking, which is why they have been so hewn in history ever since.
Just as powerful as the ‘content of their character’ line is one that came just after it, in which King dreamed of an Alabama, then beset by ‘vicious racists’, in which ‘little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers’.
Elsewhere in the speech, in a similar vein, he dreamed of a Georgia (his home state) in which one day ‘the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood’.
With this, he situated the civil-rights struggle not simply as a demand for dignity and rights for black Americans, but as a leap towards a colour-blind society – one in which ‘race’ would cease to divide, cease to be destiny, cease to mean very much at all.
How radical that still sounds. Not because tremendous progress hasn’t been made on racism over the past 60 years, but because America’s ruling class now seems intent on betraying King’s dream, on rehabilitating racism in ‘anti-racist’ form, while claiming to stand on his shoulders.
Over the past 10 years or more, a once fringe, academic definition of anti-racism – often lumped together under the banner of ‘critical race theory’ – has become the ideology of the American elites, its perverse mantras parroted by the corporate media, the C-Suite, even the White House.
This is the ideology, espoused by bestselling authors like Robin DiAngelo, that insists white supremacy still seeps from every pore of American society; that it is America’s original sin; and that, like original sin, it cannot really be overcome, just repented for, over and over again.
This is the ideology, brutally articulated by Ibram X Kendi, that insists that if racism is to be tackled at all it can only be through racial discrimination, only this time wielded against whites and to the alleged benefit of blacks. ‘The only remedy to past discrimination’, Kendi writes in his own New York Times bestseller, ‘is present discrimination’.
This is the ideology that has become the guiding principle of Joe Biden’s White House, to an extent that has surprised even some of his anti-identitarian critics. As Sean Collins has documented on spiked, Biden has embedded racial preferences into his administration, even trying to apportion Covid relief on the basis of race.
Racial thinking has been resurrected through wokeness, with black people cast as permanent victims, to be tiptoed around and pitied, essentially, by permanently repentant whites, while whites themselves are treated as almost congenitally morally wanting, as tainted by ‘white privilege’.
Thus discrimination has been given a makeover, too. Writers who masquerade as the heirs to King, and an octogenarian president who draws much of his self-image from his civil-rights record, are demanding, and mandating, that people be treated according to the colour of their skin rather than the content of their character.
Colour-blindness itself is rejected by these new racialists. In White Fragility, DiAngelo writes that King’s ‘content of their character’ line was ‘seized upon by the white public because the words were seen to provide a simple and immediate solution to racial tensions: pretend that we don’t see race, and racism will end’.
This notion, that colour-blindness is just a codeword for white disinterest in the plight of blacks, has led to a perverse situation in which even to articulate one’s desire for a post-racial society is, in some elite circles, enough to mark you out as a racist. Statements like ‘there is one race, the human race’ have even made it on to college lists of racial ‘microaggressions’.
The identitarians will often claim that their beef with colour-blindness is about means rather than ends. Yes, we all want a post-race society, they’ll say, but you need ‘race-conscious’ – ie, discriminatory – policies in order to get there.
Activists even try to enlist King to their cause, marshalling a few quotes of his, in which he appeared to express support for some form of affirmative action, to imply that he would have been squarely behind the vast racial technocracy that they seem hell bent on ushering into being.
The debate over whether or not King was more ‘race-conscious’ than white America is often led to believe is one I won’t relitigate here. Suffice to say, the identitarians tend to downplay the fact that King’s final few years were devoted to campaigns and programmes aimed at uplifting poor and working-class Americans of all hues – so convinced was he that class-based, not race-based, action was the enduring path to justice.
Without wanting to put words in the great man’s mouth, I dare say he would have been, at best, bemused by the identitarian elite’s enduring preoccupation with racial preferences at elite universities – recently struck down by the US Supreme Court – given the system ended up primarily benefiting a tiny sliver of black Americans, who tended to be the very wealthy sons and daughters of recent African and Caribbean immigrants.
In any case, it is abundantly clear that a colour-blind society was King’s promised land – a vision of the future the young southern pastor talked of in Biblical terms, of whites and blacks one day joining together in brotherhood. And it is abundantly clear that today’s ‘anti-racists’ are increasingly aggravated by this universalism.
The profound pessimism of identitarians leads them to invest the concept of race with a new and insidious meaning. They may not be the biological anti-black racists of old, but their absurd conviction that no real progress on race has been made – that, in the words of DiAngelo, racism today is if anything ‘more sinister’ than Jim Crow – posits black Americans as permanent victims, destined to always be outsiders in their own republic.
This runs directly counter to the infectious optimism of King – to his conviction that the ‘arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’. By this, he did not mean change was inevitable, but that he had faith in the capacity of America to live up to its founding ideals. As he put it in the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were a ‘promissory note to which every American was to fall heir’.
Today’s racialists, by contrast, see white supremacy as immovable, as transhistorical, as woven into the fabric of America itself. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates, dubbed the ‘laureate of black lives’ by the liberal media, wrote in his 2017 book, We Were Eight Years in Power, of his ‘deeply held belief that white supremacy was so foundational to this country that it would not be defeated in my lifetime, my child’s lifetime, or perhaps ever’.
Then there is the new particularism in woke circles – the fetishisation of ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ as distinct cultural identities. Often, this trips into just rehashing age-old racist stereotypes. In 2020, amid the ‘racial reckoning’ following the murder of George Floyd, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture put out guidelines for talking about race, positing that rational thinking, hard work and good time-keeping were aspects of ‘whiteness and white culture’.
This is not only transparently (if unwittingly) racist, it is also a blast against the integrationism of King and his firm conviction that ‘the negro is an American’, both inheritor of and contributor to the nation’s culture and destiny. ‘We are tied together in so many ways’, King said in a later speech, ‘our language, our music, our cultural patterns, our material prosperity, and even our food are an amalgam of black and white’.
Sixty years on, Martin Luther King’s dream is still to be realised. But the primary obstacle it faces today is not the old racism, staggering on like the undead, but a new racism, propagated openly by a new elite. A new elite whose pessimism and particularism is reviving racial thinking and corroding class solidarity. A new elite for whom white supremacy is immovable and colour-blindness is racism. A new elite which has betrayed King’s legacy while claiming his mantle.
Tom Slater is editor of spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_
Picture by: Hulton-Deutsch Collection.
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