Tuesday, November 24, 2020


Article Index

III. Misusing King's Legacy

A. Examples Notwithstanding King's race-consciousness and color-awareness, "people have created a mythic Martin Luther King, Jr., and associated him with a fictional notion of colorblindness." Opponents of affirmative action, for example, have erroneously cited and used King's legacy as an endorsement of colorblindness, with particular reliance on King's dream that persons would one day be judged by the content of their character and not by their skin color. Consider President Ronald Reagan's January 1986 radio address in which he rejected charges that his administration had attempted to do away with affirmative action and antipoverty programs and had weakened the enforcement of civil rights laws. Reagan stated: We are committed to a society in which all men and women have equal opportunities to succeed, and so we oppose the use of quotas. We want a color-blind society. A society, that in the words of Dr. King, judges people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. John Jacob, then-head of the National Urban League, responded that Reagan's interpretation of King's statement was a distortion of what King actually meant. Jacobs stated, "For the administration to associate the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with the attempt to destroy affirmative action is obscene." In February 1986, Reagan again turned to King to support the explanation of his administration's efforts to do away with affirmative action programs. Reagan stated that "we want affirmative action to continue. We want what I think Martin Luther King asked for: We want a colorblind society. The ideal will be when we have achieved the moment when no one--or when nothing is done to or for anyone because of race, differences, or religion, or ethnic origin; and it's done not because of those things, but in spite of them." Reagan's use of King to support colorblindness is all the more disturbing given Reagan's comment that it was too early to tell whether King was under Communist influence. William Bradford Reynolds, Assistant Attorney General during the Reagan Administration, expressed the view that the "struggle continues for a national heritage blind to skin color or ethnic background." Reynolds argued that Brown v. Board of Education set forth the judicial insistence on colorblindness in public school systems, and contended that the "true essence [of the colorblind principle] was best captured, in my judgment, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he dreamed aloud in the summer of 1963 of a nation in which his children would 'not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."' In 1991, during the United States Senate's hearings on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court, Senator Alan Simpson asked what was wrong with a colorblind society and referred to King, the "greatest . . . civil rights leader. . . [who] asked only that he and his children be judged, quote, 'based on the content of their character and not on the color of their skin,' unquote. Isn't what he was asking for was [sic] a colorblind judgment, and isn't that exactly what Judge Thomas is advocating?" In 1992, President George Bush declared that he shared King's dream of a colorblind society. One commentator, offended by Bush's comments, noted that Bush had used the Willie Horton fear tactic and racism in his 1988 presidential campaign and had opposed affirmative action proposals. In a 1992 book, Jared Taylor expressed his hope that "[s]omeday the entire edifice of race-based preferences will be torn down" and referred to King's "I Have a Dream" speech as support for his position. Characterizing the development of what he called an explicit racial identity of Blacks as the "guiding light of a movement to carve out racial privileges based on race," Taylor asserted that race-consciousness on the part of African Americans "was a rejection of the color-blind vision of Martin Luther King, and a violation of the tacit agreement under which whites were abandoning their own racial identity."

Again, as detailed in Part II, King was not opposed to race-conscious action that would have addressed the effects of past discrimination against African Americans, and he supported preferential treatment and the compensation of Blacks in recognition of the unpaid slave labor that was critical to this nation's economic development. A more recent effort to misuse King to support the colorblindness thesis is found in Dinesh D'Souza's The End of Racism. Deceptively reducing King's complexity and legacy to a "vision of a society in which we are judged as individuals on our merits," D'Souza argues that the "mention of King's insistence that character, rather than color, should be the basis of public decisions inspires embarrassment and anger. . . ." According to D'Souza: "It is no exaggeration to say that a rejection of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s vision of a regime in which we are judged solely based on the content of our character is a virtual job qualification for leadership in the civil rights movement today." D'Souza also asserts that "King never abandoned his principled position of color blindness." D'Souza's fundamental misunderstanding of King and his failure to see King's color-awareness is repeated throughout The End of Racism. For instance, he erroneously argues that King was an adherent of colorblindness. For the reasons discussed throughout this essay, D'Souza's contention that King was colorblind is both factually and thematically wrong and cannot be squared with King's color-awareness. The Republican leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives has quoted King in support of their call to eliminate affirmative action. Attorney Al Latham, a volunteer for the anti-affirmative action California Civil Rights Initiative, quotes King's "content of their character" statement. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Linda Chavez, both conservatives, have quoted King in stating their opposition to affirmative action programs. Other "neo-Kingists" include California Governor Pete Wilson and California Civil Rights Initiative Chairman Ward Connerly. B. The Dangers of Misappropriation The daunting task of demonstrating or calling for colorblindness in a country in which race matters requires one to grapple with difficult questions regarding the application of concepts of equality in a society that "has rejected equality of income and wealth as both unnecessary and counterproductive." As a result of incompletely theorized agreements with respect to the meaning or meanings of equality, some individuals will agree on a general notion of equality without agreeing on the colorblind thesis, while others will agree on the colorblind thesis without agreeing on a large-scale theory of equality. Additionally, debating the colorblind thesis raises the issue of what constitutes "discrimination." Is "discrimination" to be understood in its ordinary, dictionary usage such that all discrimination (whether against or in favor of an individual or group) is unlawful, or is the term "discrimination" to be used and understood in a technical legal fashion such that, for example, prohibited discrimination against members of one group is distinguished from permissible "discrimination" (affirmative action) in favor of members of another group? Ordinary usage would support colorblindness, while technical legal usage would not preclude and could support an argument for color-awareness. Furthermore, settling on an equality principle or concept of discrimination at any given point does not mean that those understandings have permanence or a fixed political valence. Rather, and because of the phenomenon of "ideological drift" identified by J.M. Balkin, their "valence varies over time as they are applied and understood repeatedly in new contexts or situations." Ideological drift is illustrated by the movement of colorblindness away from the concept offered in 1896 by Justice Harlan in Plessy v. Ferguson and toward the current use of colorblindness as the "rallying cry of conservatives who seek to protect white males from racial oppression." The misappropriation of King's legacy is all the more alluring for those who would otherwise have to address the aforementioned issues and debate the thesis on the merits. That King would be misused by colorblind proponents for purposes of the debate is not surprising, for he was--and remains--the leader that whites would have chosen for black Americans if they had the power to choose. To white eyes, King was safe and acceptable. It is hardly accidental that they invariably referred to him as "Dr. King," as if to draw assurance from the credentials he had earned in the white world. King stood for civil rights and peaceful change, as opposed to the fists of black power. . . . He also represented a mainstream religion, Baptist, which gave his movement moral impetus as well as political stature. Colleges and universities literally lined up to give him honorary degrees. It was this view of King that became "the establishment's model of what blacks should strive for: interracial harmony, coalition building, mutuality of interests across color and class lines." The passage of time since King's life and death makes it easier to misuse and abuse his legacy. The farther away extant society is from the days of the Civil Rights Movement and the less informed society is and remains about the specifics of those days, the more likely it is that some will simply not know or appreciate King's real views. Because "what is forgotten is as crucial as what is remembered," some have found it convenient to, in Henry Louis Gates' words, "airbrush out the more radical aspects" of King. Such airbrushing has been applied by advocates of colorblindness who enlist King in support of their cause. Invoking the name of Martin Luther King, Jr., in support of colorblindness gives proponents of that theory a number of advantages. First, it provides them with a powerful rhetorical weapon. Linking the image of Dr. King and his efforts in the struggle against racism and injustice to colorblindness provides that theory with a veil of legitimacy. If not closely examined and analyzed, this veil could serve to replace reality and set up a no question zone--after all, the misappropriators can argue, how can one disagree with Dr. King? How can those who are color-aware square their position with the purported colorblind vision of the man who said that he dreamed of the day when his children would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character? Despite manipulations of rhetoric, the argument that King was colorblind is simply wrong. But in the absence of a willingness to educate ourselves and to correct the glaring as well as the subtle errors in the King-supported colorblindness argument, it becomes easier to misstate and distort King's views and to substitute iconolatry and fundamentally flawed assumptions for argument and accurate conclusions. If the King-was-colorblind argument is not refuted, the misuse of his legacy will continue to be used to illegitimately skew the colorblind versus color-aware debate in favor of the former. That debate should be won or lost on the strength of the arguments made and reasoning employed by both sides and not on the basis of caricature, misrepresentation, and misappropriation. CONCLUSION Those who disagree with the proposition that the "question of race" is "not one of blindness, but of vision" should search for and rely upon facts and themes that do not misappropriate Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy. Any such misuse of King as a symbol for colorblindness must be recognized for what it is: a deception (knowing or unknowing) built on misleading sound-bites, ahistorical and acontextual "analysis" and other fundamentally flawed premises. This deception must be highlighted and continually questioned by those who are interested in accuracy, principled argument, and respect for King's actual words, acts, and life.

[a]. Assistant Professor of Law, University of Alabama School of Law. B.A. 1980, Wilberforce University; J.D. 1984, University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law