(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.
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 Equal 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.”
Colorblind 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.