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Embracing MLK's Moral Vision


We can't allow the misuse of Martin Luther King's quotes and the empty promise of colorblindness mislead us.

Several years ago, during MLK birthday weekend, I was a guest on a call-in radio show in the Bay Area. A white man called in, furious. He quoted this piece of the March on Washington speech and said that I was obviously incapable of seeing beyond the color of someone’s skin to the content of their character. He evoked an Indian friend, someone who had arrived in the country with nearly nothing in his pocket, but still made it to success because he worked hard and never encountered even the tiniest bit of discrimination. We had evolved into a colorblind society, so what was my problem that I had to obsessively count who had what, he wanted to know.

I’ve had this experience many times with this particular quote, both before and after this incident. Every time it happens, I feel my body growing a shield against the misuse. My eyes would roll to the back of my head even before the charge of “reverse racism” had been named. I quoted statistics to reveal how empty the promise of colorblindness was, and how sneakily it hid the ongoing and often violent discrimination affecting communities of color. Colorblindness wasn’t my goal, I’d say. My goal was racial justice, which required checking to see whether opportunities and good outcomes were fairly distributed in our society.

I doubt that I had much of an effect on those haters of modern civil rights activists like myself, but they had a big effect on me. I let their interpretation of King’s dream as colorblindness separate me from the dream itself. I let them make me hate this quote by using it against me again and again. I let them turn me into a visionless intellectual. They said “colorblind is how it is now,” I said “but systemic racism.” They said, “counting is racist;” I defended counting like the most dedicated statistician who ever lived. They said, “you’re the real racist;” I said “no, I’m making things fair.” I talked in data, policies, structures and I had no sympathy for the desire to be colorblind.

I understand, though, why colorblindness is so appealing, and I give huge props to race conservatives who have successfully asserted that, as a society, we are there. As a producer at Fox News said to me once, “Racial justice, I don’t really get that. You got Oprah, Obama. What more do you want?” It makes perfect, gut-level sense that if discrimination is the result of racial noticing, not noticing race would be the solution.

I can’t fight such an intuitive “truth” with data and policies. I can’t even fight it with more effective stories, or “narratives” as we wonks like to call them. I can only fight it with a more intuitive vision of what constitutes justice. And that vision is still to be judged on the content of my character rather than the color of my skin, and to ensure that all others can live their lives on that basis. The thing is, racism isn’t based on race, because race is nothing. Racism is based on power, greed and fear, three instincts that are as deeply embedded in the human brain as justice, love and courage.

I am writing this in a week that started with David Reich asserting that some racial distinctions are biological, not socially constructed, using IQ tests as a measure of difference. A day later, friends reported that flyers were going around England calling April 3 “ Punish a Muslim Day.” This week, the Department of Justice set deportation quotas for immigration judges so more people will be deported faster. This week, the Supreme Court decided that University of Arizona police officers who shot and killed a woman holding a knife but standing six feet away, were justified in their use of force.

Today, we note the assassination of Martin Luther King, whose martyred memory and most powerful speech have become the lead in to “shut the hell up about racism already,” per my angry radio caller. Murdering Dr. King was supposed to kill his dream. That assassin has almost succeeded – arguably chilling radical activism against racial injustice for decades.

But today, I have decided to own Martin Luther King’s moral vision -- that, one day, we will judge and be judged only by the content of character rather than the color of our skin. I meditate on that dream and I pledge to live by its light, both in my individual reactions to people and in the kinds of solutions I fight for. I pledge to talk about it often, before anything else. It’s the dream of being seen fully, and still being allowed to live as ourselves. Every human being deserves that, and nothing less.

I've been feeling my own fear recently about radical activism. Wondering how I was so much more comfortable with the idea of confronting the police state even just a few months ago. I suspect the only antidote to that fear is to confront head on by refusing to be cowed by the current climate.

Thank you Rinku for your wisdom as ever.

Ben, thanks for sharing,