U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Martin Luther King and Colorblind Conservatism

MLK(The following is a talk I will give at the University of Southern Denmark to commemorate the Fiftieth Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech. I will be one of six speakers at an event hosted by the Center for American Studies.)

On this date in 2010, conservative television personality Glenn Beck held a “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the Washington Mall, the same spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his world-famous “I Have a Dream” speech 47 ago years to that day. Beck claimed his event was meant to “reclaim the civil rights movement” from that alleged socialist President Obama, who distorted King’s vision of a colorblind America with his redistributionist policies.glenn beck

How is it that King, much, much closer to an actual socialist than Obama, went from being a pariah at the time of his death, considered one of the most dangerous men in America by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, to being revered by conservatives like Beck as an American hero for individual liberty? Such a peculiar shift owes much to the fact that conservatives have effectively claimed the most memorable line from King’s speech as their own: “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.”

King’s vision of a colorblind America was about a future utopia. However, conservatives now think King’s civil rights movement was an unmitigated success, that the nation is truly colorblind. That the president (whom they hate) is black is proof of such progress. Conservative colorblindness, then, ignores the ways in which race continues to handicap a person’s chances of success. As of now, black Americans are eight times more likely than white Americans to experience chronic poverty. The schools many black Americans attend are acutely underfunded. And black men are eight times more likely than white men to spend time in prison, a discrepancy one scholar calls “the new Jim Crow.” The “color line,” a phrase coined by Frederick Douglass in 1881 to describe the emergence of Jim Crow, unfortunately continues to be a useful metaphor for American racial exclusion. Race continues to be a festering wound on the nation.

Up through the mid-1960s, liberals were the ones who supported a colorblind approach to equal opportunity. But when racial inequality proved obstinate, liberals adjusted their notions about how best to obtain equality. Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, most American companies continued their usual practice of exclusively employing whites, since, ironically, contravening the colorblind principle of “merit” was a technical violation of the Act’s provision against preferential treatment. In the face of this, many liberals tentatively embraced “affirmative action.” Some even embraced Black Power-infused arguments about institutional racism, arguments about how standards such as “merit” were embedded in the history of a nation that had only 100 years ago enslaved black people and, as such, were anything but colorblind. This new liberal vision favored a proactive government that would guarantee black Americans not only “equality as a right and a theory,” but also, as President Lyndon Johnson famously put it, “equality as a fact and as a result.”

Most conservatives rejected affirmative action from the outset. Some, like Barry Goldwater, couched their arguments in libertarian terms, arguing that it was an unwarranted government intervention into free labor market exchanges. But more generally, they grounded their resistance in a simple question that might have been asked by Martin Luther King: “Is color the test of competence?” Always attuned to white majority opinion, Nixon reversed his earlier, opportunistic support for affirmative action in time for the 1972 campaign. Referring to his opponent George McGovern as “the quota candidate,” Nixon thundered at the Republican National Convention: “You do not correct an ancient injustice by committing a new one.” During the 1980 campaign, Reagan argued against affirmative action in the following way: “I’m old enough to remember when quotas existed in the U.S. for the purpose of discrimination. And I don’t want to see that happen again.” Reagan did not wish to see King’s dream die, or so it seemed.

Reagan’s appointments to civil rights positions set the tone of his administration’s approach to race. Conservative lawyer Clarence Thomas was tapped as chair of the CLARENCE THOMASEqual Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), which was formed in 1961 by JFK due to pressure put on him by the Civil Rights Movement. A black Georgian and current Supreme Court justice, Thomas wrote in his memoirs that the stigmatizing effects of affirmative action put him at a disadvantage while he attended Yale Law School. With Thomas taking the lead, the Reagan administration slowly chipped away at affirmative action. The EEOC quit identifying patterns of discrimination and instead pressed a smaller number of individual discrimination cases, including a few so-called “reverse discrimination” cases. In short, colorblind conservatives used the power of the federal government to slow some of the signature achievements of the civil rights movement. Reagan did his part in this cause by regularly invoking Martin Luther King as his inspiration for a colorblind America, claiming he was committed to “a society where people would be judged on the content of their character, not the color of their skin.”

steeleColorblind conservatism had its intellectual advocates. English professor Shelby Steele, author of the critically acclaimed 1990 book The Content of Our Character, thought Reagan’s colorblind approach to race, his calls for “individual initiative, self sufficiency, strong families,” would prove more effective in combatting the color line than anything on offer from liberals. This was because he believed that liberal policies such as affirmative action were steeped in an ideology of victimhood. He wrote: “Since the social victim has been oppressed by society, he comes to feel that his individual life will be improved more by changes in society than by his own initiative.” In other words, by regarding themselves as victims of systematic racism, and by waiting for social remedies, blacks were tragically failing to take responsibility for their own lives. In Steele’s words, they were “race-holding,” or making excuses for not putting in the effort needed to succeed in America. This represented Steele’s explanation for the paradoxical persistence of racial inequality even after the victories of the civil rights movement. “If conditions have worsened for most of us as racism has receded, then much of the problem must be of our own making.” It was no wonder, then, that so many conservatives, and whites in general, embraced Steele. He offered a solution to the color line that did not demand they make sacrifices. And he pinned much of the blame for racial inequality on black Americans.

In sum, since conservatives think racism is a thing of the past, racial inequality is the fault of blacks failing in terms of the “content of their character,” not because of the “color of their skin.” Conservatives have turned King’s famous words upside down and inside out. This is one of the peculiar legacies of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

13 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Wonderful speech, Andrew; should be a hit.

    I’m not sure if this is too late to be helpful, but it seems the rise of colorblind conservativism coincided with the rise of evangelical conservativism; in other words, evangelicals have had a HUGE role in shaping the right’s views on race. See Dochuk’s chapter on Reagan, for instance, or Steven Miller’s Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South. Michael Emerson’s Divided By Faith documents the faith-based individualism underpinning colorblindness as well. For what it’s worth.

    • Which makes perfect sense; the bible generally puts a much greater premium on moral character then genetic lineage, Jesus went out of his way to offend racial bigots, and the apostles said there was no jew or greek in Christ.

  2. Great summary of the development of colorblind ideology. I have to nit pick something, however – liberals were very complicit in the emergence of this ideology, as well. Although they did indeed support affirmative action starting in the mid-1960s, they also shifted attention away from institutionalized racism and redirected discussions towards “cultural issues” such as the black family, a culture of pathology, etc. In the same Howard University speech you quote Johnson calling for equality of result, he went on to talk about how all these efforts would come to naught if the black family was not fixed. By the 1970s, conservatives had captured this logic for their own and exploited it to its fullest potential — ie, this “content of their character,” ideological twist that you point out. But conservatives did not so much alter the logic of liberals who talked about a culture of poverty so much as embrace it fully and push it to its logical conclusion. Or so I argue in my dissertation :).

  3. Excellent read. I’ve been intrigued for years now by conservatism’s embrace of colorblind conservatism through the use of memory of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It would be interesting to look back at, say, the 1983 debates over making King’s birthday a national holiday to see how much it popped up back then in justifying the holiday.

    Certainly King has become a hero for liberals, conservatives, and radicals. Memory of what he stood for, however, has become somewhat fractured, especially once you get away from the mainstream memory of the man and look at more partisan interpretations of what he stood for.

    One other note: there’s an interesting piece in a recent book called “Freedom Rights” edited by Danielle McGuire and John Dittmer. The book is a collection of articles of recent, somewhat revisionist scholarship on the Civil Rights Movement. One of the pieces is called “EEOC politics and limits on Reagan’s civil rights legacy” by Emily Zuckerman, and it tackles the EEOC in the 1980s. In her work, she backs up what you state (and what many others have observed as well) about their attempts to dismantle affirmative action. However, what makes her piece unique is that it shows Thomas still pursuing some discrimination cases in the 1980s, partly to defend his own turf. It also shows the limits of what the Reagan Administration could, and couldn’t, do in its pursuit to hold a conservative line on race in America. It’s a fascinating piece, and I think it points to a highly contested politics of race that have occurred in the United States since the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

    Your piece here, which tackles memory, politics, and race, is a really good one. I wish I could be there to hear it!

  4. Thanks for the comments and encouragement, all.

    Mark: Yes, I take note of how evangelical thinking on race helped shape colorblind conservatism in my larger work on the culture wars. I would argue, however, that neoconservatives, with a deeply rooted respect for meritocracy, did more to help shape this larger ideology. Perhaps that’s a debate to be had once my book is published, since I assume many people will take issue with my argument about how neoconservatives were crucial in forming conservative arguments that held sway in the culture wars. But in this talk, I could only do so much.

    Robin Marie: Oh, yes. In my larger work, I go into great depth about how liberals from Moynihan to William Julius Wilson focused on culture of poverty analyses as opposed to structural or institutional explanations of racial inequality. I guess in this talk I am using the term “liberal” in a necessarily over-vague way. Some liberals, particularly those racial liberals in the legal realm, followed Thurgood Marshall in maintaining a structural and historical perspective on racism, which led them to continue supporting affirmative action. Other liberals, who sometimes blurred the lines between racial liberalism and neoconservatism, went in the direction you describe. In any case, I can’t wait to read your dissertation (or shall I wait for it to be a book?)

    Robert: Thanks for recommending the Zuckerman essay. I’ll check it out. One fact that complicated Reagan’s efforts to undermine affirmative action is that by the 1980s many corporations actually had come to appreciate affirmative action policies. Not only were they used to working with the regulatory system, but they had come to recognize the merits of a diverse workforce. Diversity was good business.

    Cheers all.

    • Robin,

      I was under the impression, from my dated reading of Johnson’s Howard address, that he was interested in government helping bring about more solid black families (rescuing them from poverty) more than using bad family values as an excuse to not offer aid—which is the conservative take on the culture of poverty problem. In other words, I thought Johnson was interested in tackling these problems together—that they were of a piece. But maybe my interp has been colored by personal views of LBJ–maybe I haven’t been looking honestly at him with sixties-era conservative norms? – TL

  5. Hi Tim – good question; the answer is a bit multi-faceted, and how you answer it depends partially on your overall assessment of post-war liberalism and, Johnson’s Great Society as a whole. As for Johnson’s personal intentions, I imagine he was about as sincere as most liberals at the time about doing something about black poverty, and to that end, yes, he saw helping out the black family as part and parcel of that project. However, the so-called War on Poverty, of course, was no such thing; the most progressive programs, the Community Action programs, were made so mostly due to the actions of both radicalized white social workers and local black residents who quickly realized the limitations of “lobbying” local elites. Meanwhile, Johnson vetoed any substantial jobs programs that would create jobs for black men – which, according to Moynihan, was one of the first things that needed to be done – and never pursued any policies that would have substantially altered the market for the sake of pulling poor black families out of poverty. Rather, the War on Poverty offered programs – like the Jobs Corps – to simply make poor people more adept at competing in the market as it existed. But this wouldn’t address, of course, the dynamics of ghettoization or institutionalized racism.

    Moreover, the way liberals – Johnson included – talked about poverty imagined it as primarily a cultural problem. Sometimes this was subtle, and sometimes explicit, and, I argue, it had a lot to do with some deep-seated intellectual assumptions about the triumph of the New Deal economy in overcoming, as Seymour Martin Lipset put it, “the fundamental political problems of the industrial revolution…” Now, this doesn’t mean that liberals completely ignored the material realities of poverty or that they totally abandoned structural analysis, but their fascination with the idea of poverty as a cultural problem resulted in that structural analysis being watered down so much as to not really factor in to the policy goals of the Democratic Party.

    You see this in the Howard University speech itself. Johnson endorsed the logic of affirmative action, and motioned that blacks ought to be assisted in competing in the open market. (Note that he says you can’t place them at the starting line after being hobbled by chains, but, he doesn’t question the appropriateness of the competitive starting-line metaphor itself as the given model for liberals to aspire to.) But in the same speech, he argued that all policy aimed at so assisting them would fail if the black family wasn’t fixed. “…unless we work to strengthen the family, to create conditions under which most parents will stay together—all the rest: schools, and playgrounds, and public assistance, and private concern, will never be enough to cut completely the circle of despair and deprivation.” Therefore, it was the black family, above all, which would have to be fortified in order to bring social justice to black America; and the way Johnson constructed it, it appeared like this would have to happen first – policy would have its impact if the family was fixed, in other words, rather than the family being fixed through policy which made family stability possible.

    Liberals start emphasizing this point, moreover, at precisely the time when it was becoming clear that the Civil Rights Movement was moving on to a new stage and increasingly demanding that the federal government do something about housing, schools, spotty and insufficient welfare payments, etc. What I argue in my dissertation is that these two developments occurring at the same time is no coincidence – that post-war liberals, in other words, could not really grapple with the extent of poverty and particularly black poverty from within their given assumptions, and so this culture of poverty idea was a powerful way for them both to address the issue (because liberals at least felt themselves to care about this and viewed it as a social problem, right, so they did want to take it seriously) but without having to abandon their basic liberal beliefs (or “believies,” really, a great Louis CK concept they were citing over at Crooked Timber today).

    So, I think it is a mistake to say, yes, liberals came up with the culture of poverty but then it was distorted by conservatives into something entirely different – I argue it is more like liberals came up with the culture of poverty to avoid confronting shortcomings in their own ideology, but the conservatives, having no such compunctions, just pushed the implications of the culture of poverty to its logical conclusions. And likewise, I disagree with the common liberal & conservative narrative today that conversations about black poverty became unproductive – or non-existent – in the decades following the 1960s because liberals were too cowed by identity politics and their black constituency to talk bold, brave truth about the black family (poor Pat Moynihan, who never stopped feeling like a victim because people pointed out to him the problems with his report, continues to enjoy plenty of pity from admirers today) but because they themselves lacked any significantly different explanation for what was going on in the inner cities. And if they weren’t going to confront structural problems of race and class at the height of their power over political discourse, they certainly were not going to do it in the context of the rise of the New Right.

    So that’s the gist of my argument. I have a whole dissertation trying to back it up, but those are the headlines.

    • Robin,

      This is great! Thanks so much for being brave here—revealing a significant chunk of your argument’s backbone before the book is out. Consider it early promotion!

      So, to summarize in my own words: The “War on Poverty” was more like a police action on poverty—no declaration of war, no congressional consent, means questionable, and the end result completely unsatisfying. And of course we have always known that the “War on Poverty” was inadequate because, well, poverty didn’t go away, and MLK, Jr. kept fighting a pseudo-guerrilla action after the height of the CRM and LBJ’s war. The problem, however, in your work, is that we historians and liberals and lefties and whoever else cares about poverty haven’t properly assessed just how inadequate LBJ’s views were, as well as other liberals. So I guess that Michael Harrington comes out smelling even sweeter in your work than he has for some of us (i.e. me)?

      Question: How much consideration do you give to the horizon of political and policy possibility for Democrats in an early post-war era that was politically touchy for them (i.e. voting-wise in relation to Dixiecrats and strong vocal minority of conservative Republicans)? In other words, was their post-war liberalism constrained internally (which is I believe your answer above), or did it have a strong element of realism in the face of obstinate politics? I mean, LBJ was a known arm-twister, but there were others wise in the way of political science. – TL

      • Hi Tim – Your summary sounds about right. As for Harrington, he comes out looking better than most liberals but also comes in for a critique himself. The Other America really milked the culture of poverty idea for all that it was worth, and, like some other leftists involved in popularizing the idea, Harrington did not really interrogate the problematic implications of how he framed the poverty question. It shouldn’t be surprising, for example, that Dwight MacDonald, in a review of Harrington’s book, explicitly separated economic inequality from poverty. Harrington was very much implying that post-war poverty was as much a psychological beast as a material one.
        That being said, Harrington incorporated a lot more structural analysis when he talked about black poverty, because he highlighted institutional racism and the limits of mere legal and political equality.

        As for how much of this constraint is internally imposed, I would indeed argue that the extent to which this is the case is underappreciated. Post-war liberals certainly faced political obstacles to creating a bolder liberalism, but I argue that they did not merely hold themselves back or inherit conservative positions from an earlier time period as actively create and contribute to the limits of their ideology. In fleshing this out I myself do not look too much into the constraints imposed by other political actors – which is probably a weakness in the dissertation as it stands – but rather the pluralists and consensus school scholars (Riesman, Lipset, Bell, Kornhauser before the 1960s, etc) who, I argue, really provided the culture of poverty theorists with their intellectual drinking water. And in concern to that body of thought, race (or the lack of really grappling with it) is important but also, the Cold War is incredibly central in encouraging liberals to reel back whatever more progressive tendencies popped up for a while in the earlier moments of the New Deal. But once that move was made, they did not merely stop where they were, but came up with their own concepts and ideas for understanding and justifying post-war America; a framework which ultimately included this casting of poverty as primarily a cultural or psychological problem.
        Thanks for these helpful questions!

  6. Except that, upon being inspired to re-watch that Louis CK video, I am reminded that it means the opposite of what I remembered it to mean. So whoops!, reverse that.

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