Misreading the Dream: Color-Blindness and the Distortion of Martin Luther King Jr.

Published in LIP Magazine, www.lipmagazine.org, January 21, 2003

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that someone as oft-quoted as Martin Luther King Jr., might occasionally have his words misinterpreted, misunderstood, or taken out of context. King’s status as something of a secular saint only magnifies the willingness and desire of writers, academics, political commentators, and elected officials to expropriate King’s words to advance one or another agenda.

Nowhere is the tendency to “play the King card” more apparent than in the claim by dozens of contemporary writers and theorists that King’s principal goal was “color-blindness,” and that he viewed the development of such a legally codified visual disability as the avenue by which racism would best be attacked. To support this view, these writers rely principally on one line, from one speech–and it’s not only the most famous line delivered by King, but also one of the few most folks have probably heard: namely, the one from the 1963 March on Washington, wherein King proclaimed his “dream” that one day persons “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

For many, this is proof that King, were he alive today, would oppose race-conscious policies like affirmative action, since, after all, such efforts require targeted outreach, recruitment, and hiring goals for people of color previously locked out of opportunity in education, employment, and contracting.

Shelby Steele, in his 1990 best-seller The Content of Our Character, presents a harsh critique of affirmative action efforts, claiming they have “done more harm than good” and implying that King would agree. Steele seeks to prove this not only with reference to the Dream speech, but also by recounting a 1964 presentation in which King implored black youth to “run faster” to get ahead: the implication being that King was an apostle of self-help and hostile to special efforts to provide full opportunities to people of color.

Clint Bolick — one of the leading critics of affirmative action — writes in his 1996 book, The Affirmative Action Fraud, that King did not seek “special treatment” for blacks, and, as with Steele, mentions the “content of their character” remark as justification for his position. Tamar Jacoby, in her 1998 offering Someone Else’s House: America’s Unfinished Struggle for Integration, says King’s “dream” was color-blindness. Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, in America in Black and White, make the same claim as part of their critique of race-conscious programs, as do Terry Eastland, in Ending Affirmative Action, and Paul Sniderman and Edward Carmines, in Reaching Beyond Race, who say “the civil rights movement…took as its ideal a truly colorblind society, where, as Martin Luther King Jr. prophesied, our children would be judged…” by you know what.

Even writers not particularly hostile to affirmative action often make the same argument. Consider John David Skrentny’s historical survey of race-conscious programs, The Ironies of Affirmative Action, in which the author writes: “Martin Luther King believed in color-blindness and…also sensed that affirmative action would be counterproductive to the long-range goals of civil rights groups.”

Similarly, Richard Kahlenberg — whose book The Remedy calls for a reorientation of affirmative action from a race to a class focus — argues the move to race-conscious affirmative action was a “changed direction” by the civil rights movement, after King’s assassination, and that this shift has pushed America “further than ever from King’s vision of a color-blind society.”

Perhaps the most extensive articulation of the notion that the modern civil rights movement has betrayed King by supporting affirmative action comes from Dinesh D’Souza in his 1995 book The End of Racism. D’Souza says affirmative action “seems to be a repudiation of King’s vision, in that it involves a celebration and affirmation of group identity.” He then claims “black leaders are the strongest opponents of King’s principles,” which he defines as the doctrine that “race should be ignored and we should be judged on our merits as persons.” Oddly enough, despite the faint praise for King’s “vision,” as he understands it, D’Souza then calls for the repeal of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, arguably the crowning legislative achievement of the movement King led.

Yet, despite the wealth of literature claiming that Dr. King principally sought color-blindness and would have opposed affirmative action, an examination of his writings makes such a position impossible to maintain. From the beginning, King placed responsibility for the nation’s racial inequality squarely on whites, indicating that he was hardly visually impaired on these matters.

In a 1956 article, collected in James Washington’s superbly edited collection, Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., King said that whites had “rejected the very center of their own ethical professions…and so they rationalized” the conditions under which they had forced blacks to live. And in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963), King specifically criticized white ministers and white moderates, who he faulted for being “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” and whom he said were perhaps more of a barrier to true freedom for blacks than the Klan. In short, King was hardly color-blind. He was clear as to who the victims, and who the chief perpetrators of racism were, and he said so forcefully.

King was even more clear on so-called “preferential treatment”–what we now typically refer to as affirmative action. Although it is true that King called for universal programs of economic and educational opportunity for all the poor, regardless of race, he also saw the need for programs targeted at the victims of American racial apartheid.

In 1961, after visiting India, King praised that nation’s “preferential” policies that had been put in place to provide opportunity to those at the bottom of the caste system, and in a 1963 article in Newsweek, published the very month of the “I Have a Dream” speech, King actually suggested it might be necessary to have something akin to “discrimination in reverse” as a form of national “atonement” for the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. The most direct articulation of his views on the subject is found in his 1963 classic Why We Can’t Wait, in which King noted:

“Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential 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 for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man enters the starting line of a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some incredible feat in order to catch up.”

In his 1967 volume, Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community?, King was even more explicit when he said, “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, in order to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis.”

In a 1965 Playboy interview, King spelled out what that “something special” might entail, and it was far more substantive than affirmative action. In fact, King stated his support for an aid package for black America in the amount of $50 billion. As King explained:

“…for two centuries the Negro was enslaved and robbed of any wages–potential accrued wealth which would have been the legacy of his descendants. All of America’s wealth today could not adequately compensate its Negroes for his centuries of exploitation and humiliation.”

Although some might consider the differing interpretations of King’s views regarding affirmative action or color-blindness to be little more than an interesting historical debate, the fact is, claims of King’s hostility to any race-conscious efforts — claims that are evidently counter to his true beliefs — have had an impact on public policy and the national debate over affirmative action. For example, during the ultimately successful campaign in California to eliminate racial “preferences,” supporters of Proposition 209 conjured the image of King repeatedly and, until criticized by the King family, had been planning to air a TV spot showing the “content of their character” segment of King’s “Dream” speech.

According to Lydia Chavez, in The Color-Bind: California’s Battle to End Affirmative Action, the voiceover for the ad said: “Martin Luther King was right. Bill Clinton is wrong to oppose Proposition 209. Let’s get rid of all preferences.”

Similarly, Louisiana Governor Mike Foster eliminated certain affirmative action programs in that state upon taking office in 1996. According to Ellis Cose in Color-Blind: Seeing Beyond Race in a Race-Obsessed World,” as Foster signed the legislation outlawing a handful of race-conscious programs, he noted: “This just says we’ve got to be color-blind…Dr. King believed all men should be judged by their character, not by the color of their skin.” Foster went so far as to say that he “could find nothing in King’s writing” that would indicate King would have disagreed with his actions that day, leading one to wonder just how much of King’s work the governor had actually read.

Of course, in the end, how people feel about affirmative action or other race-conscious efforts to remedy the legacy and ongoing problem of discrimination is up to them. No one should assume that simply because Dr. King appears to have supported such efforts that this necessarily makes King, and those who support affirmative action today, correct. But it is telling that so many feel the need to link their views to King in an attempt to roll back such programs; to claim the mantle of moral authority provided by the words of this particular individual. It is an indication of how powerful a figure King remains, even 35 years after his death. But at the very least, regardless of the debate over the legitimacy of affirmative action, it seems only fair to insist that we present King’s views honestly and completely and not attempt to use his words for purposes he would have found unacceptable.

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