A phrase I read over at Eve Tushnet’s place gave me deja vu:
…anti-aff. action people talk about the colorblind ideal, judging people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Eventually, I remembered where I’d recently read something similar: Foxnews’ Wendy McElroy had quoted Martin Luther King Jr. in a recent anti-affirmative action column:
…is it ever proper for a tax- funded institution to systematically privilege one class of people at the expense of another?
Martin Luther King, leader of the ’60s civil rights movement, didn’t think so. In his justly renowned speech “I Have a Dream” King declared, “I have a dream that my four 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.”
Contemporary “civil rights” leaders are demanding King’s grandchildren be judged on the basis of skin color.
Both Eve and McElroy are pretty typical of their movement: conservatives love citing Dr King to attack affirmative action. In California, the Republican party has even used film clips of Dr. King in anti-affirmative-action ads.
Strangely enough, none of these folks seem to know – or care – that they’re distorting King’s words and meanings to oppose what King himself believed. Without making too big a deal of it, there’s something dishonest about dozens of conservatives quoting MLK to make their anti-AA case – none of whom admit that they’re arguing against what Dr. King himself believed, and against how King himself meant the “I have a dream” speech.
Did Dr. King oppose affirmative action? Well, the term “affirmative action” wasn’t in play during Dr. King’s life; and it’s impossible to know for certain what King would think if he were alive today. But during his life, he certainly didn’t oppose special programs to help blacks. According to historian Clayborne Carson:
Even before the March on Washington, he had applauded the Indian government’s efforts to help the caste once called untouchables through “special treatment to enable the victims of discrimination” including the provision of Especial employment opportunities.” Moreover, in his 1964 book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” King compared the social reforms he favored to the GI Bill of Rights, which gave World War II veterans special preferences including home loans, college scholarships and special advantages in competition for civil service jobs. King maintained that African- Americans could never be adequately compensated for the “exploitation and humiliation” they had suffered in the past, but he proposed a “Negro Bill of Rights” as a partial remedy for these wrongs. He insisted that African-Americans should be compensated through “a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law.” He added that “such measures would certainly be less expensive than any computation based on two centuries of unpaid wages and accumulated interest.”
King wrote that “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years, must now to something special for him, in order to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis.” King’s organization began “Operation Breadbasket,” an early AA-type program. Here’s how Dr. King described the program in Where Do We Go From Here?
Operation Breadbasket is carried out mainly by clergymen. First, a team of ministers calls on the management of a business in the community to request basic facts on the company’s total number of employees, the number of Negro employees, the department or job classification in which all are located, and the salary ranges for each category. The team then returns to the steering committee to evaluate the data and to make a recommendation concerning the number of new and upgraded jobs that should be requested. The decision on the number of jobs requested is usually based on population figures. For instance, if a city has a 30 percent Negro population, then it is logical to assume that Negroes should have at least 30 percent of the jobs in any particular company, and jobs in all categories rather than only in menial areas, as the case almost always happens to be.
In fact, King’s writings – taken as a whole, rather than the out-of-context quotes right-wingers prefer – make him sound pretty much like any current defender of Affirmative Action. “Whenever the issue of compensatory treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic.”
Conservatives like Eve do share a dream with Martin Luther King: a dream of a society in which everyone is judged by the content of their characters, not the color of their skins. But we’re not there yet; and as Dr. King said, it’s unrealistic to expect that we can achieve equality without preference programs. To use Dr. King to oppose the policies he favored – or to simply lie and claim he’d oppose such policies, as Wendy McElroy did – ain’t playing kosher.
Attempting to reframe Dr. King as an AA opponent is both dishonest and disrespectful.
UPDATE: So what is going on here? If it were just a matter of Eve’s post, there’d be no problem. But what’s going on is a widespread pattern of conservatives using MLK against affirmative action – and generally using him in a far less evenhanded and fair way than Eve did. And I’ve yet to see a single conservative citing MLK’s “dream” acknowledge that MLK himself thought his vision was compatible with supporting AA-type policies.
Overall, I think conservatives cite MLK so much because Dr. King has – not just with liberals, but with virtually all Americans – a great deal of credibility on race issues. Conservatives, in contrast, have zero credibility on race (except among other conservatives). Since conservatives are so lacking credibility on race, they try and “borrow” some of MLK’s for their own purposes.
Eve asks if she should have to cite MLK’s actual views every time the phrase “content of their character” comes up. Maybe not – but it would be nice if the conservative movement, when frequently citing MLK on affirmative action, would cite his actual views at least some of the time.
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