Nineteen sixty-three was a pivotal year in the history of race relations in the United States. In April of that year, Martin Luther King Jr. and several other civil rights leaders initiated a nonviolent protest campaign to desegregate public facilities in Birmingham, Alabama. City authorities turned fire hoses and police dogs on a large crowd of demonstrators—many of whom were children from local schools—and hundreds of protesters were beaten and arrested. The violent commotion was broadcast in national and world news media, allowing millions to witness the startling brutality of American racism for the first time. Two months later, President John F. Kennedy appeared on national television to proclaim his support for pending legislation that would forbid racial discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. To help champion this legislation, civil rights advocates organized demonstrations in nearly every major city in the United States—culminating in a massive late-summer protest, the August 1963 March on Washington. Two hundred and fifty-thousand people— the largest protest group in U.S. history—marched to the Lincoln Memorial, where several civil rights leaders delivered speeches. The highlight of this event was Martin Luther King’s eloquent and heartfelt “I Have a Dream” speech. “I have a dream,” King yearned, “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.”
More than forty years later, King’s words remain an emblem for those who aspire to create a society unimpeded by racism. Today’s civil rights advocates, however, have stark differences of opinion over the interpretation of the slain leader’s words and over the means by which his dream can be achieved. While progressives generally believe that King would support race-sensitive programs that attempt to counteract discrimination, such as affirmative action in education and employment, most conservatives argue that King would advocate colorblind policies in which character and merit—not race—determine hiring and college admissions decisions.
The concept of colorblindness—that is, public policy that is blind to race and ethnicity—is held in high regard by conservatives such as Ward Connerly and Glynn Custred. In the mid-1990s Connerly and Custred launched the California Civil Rights Initiative, a ballot measure designed to end affirmative action programs in hiring, contracting, and public education. Since the 1970s these programs had required California to ensure minority representation in its workforce and college populations by including race as a factor in its policy decisions. But in 1996 California voters adopted the new initiative, which declared that the state could not “discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, education, and contracting.” The state of Washington passed a similar anti-affirmative action measure in 1998.
Supporters of the California and Washington initiatives maintain that such laws bring the United States closer to King’s dream in which individuals are judged by their character and talents rather than by their race. They believe that affirmative action amounts to preferential treatment for minorities—a form of antiwhite “reverse discrimination” that thwarts the ideals of equal opportunity and fairness. In the opinion of Roger Clegg, general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, “You can’t undo the discrimination against some blacks by some whites in the past by requiring new discrimination on behalf of different blacks against different whites. The solution to the discrimination that exists is not more discrimination. It is to enforce the laws we have and to stop discriminating.”
Another policy change that some conservatives believe would nurture King’s dream and help bring racial discrimination to an end is to abandon the use of racial categories altogether. For one thing, the increase in the population of people of mixed ethnicity is quickly making the traditional “black/white/ Asian/Hispanic” categories obsolete, analysts point out. Moreover, many agree that race is mainly a social concept unrelated to an individual’s personality or culture. This notion is supported by geneticists’ explanations about differences in skin color, hair texture, or eye shape—surface traits that evolved over thousands of years as regional populations adapted to their environment. All humans belong to the same species, critics of racial categories assert, and they believe that abandoning the use of race as a signifier of identity would liberate people from the societal stereotypes, divisiveness, and self-fulfilling prophecies attached to race.
Supporting this call to abandon racial categories, Californian Ward Connerly proposed another measure, the Racial Privacy Initiative (RPI), which he believed would reinforce his state’s 1996 law ending affirmative action and usher in an era of colorblindness. The intention of this initiative was to prohibit state agencies from classifying Californians by race, ethnicity, or national origin for any purpose having to do with public education, contracting, or employment. In effect, schools would not be allowed to report the racial make-up of their student bodies, government agencies could not recount what percentage of their workforce is minority, and no state policies could be made on the basis of race. In 2003, however, Californians voted against the passage of the RPI.
Despite this setback, Shelby Steele, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, believes that measures like the RPI would help correct the errors made by the 1960s civil rights establishment. Its major mistake, in Steele’s opinion, was in deciding “to give resources and preferential treatment more to victims of racism than to people who simply suffer cultural and economic deprivations. . . . More and more racism was the lever one pushed to get entitlements and preferences, and cultural deprivation became more important as evidence of racism than as a problem to be overcome in its own right.” Measures promoting colorblindness, however, would turn “a black fourth grader who can’t read into simply a fourth grader who can’t read.” In other words, Steele argues, deprivation would no longer be seen as something attached to race, and the reading problem could be confronted head-on as an educational problem, not as a “racial” problem. As a result, educators could “get out the phonics books and teach reading, and forget about ‘culturally specific learning styles,” concludes Steele.
While conservatives hail anti-affirmative action measures and the potential abolishment of racial categories as signs of progress in the fight against discrimination, progressives often view these efforts as naive or—more troublingly— as disingenuous. “Indeed,” writes University of Pennsylvania humanities professor Michael Eric Dyson, “conservatives in this country must be applauded for their perverse ingenuity in co-opting the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the rhetoric of the civil rights movement. . . . Many conservatives pretend to embrace a revolution that they, in fact, bitterly opposed.” In Dyson’s opinion, conservatives are attempting to appropriate the symbolism and moral authority of King to boost a political agenda that he actually would have resisted. Dyson maintains that conservatives are quoting King out of context when they point to his “I Have a Dream” speech as an implicit call to avoid race-sensitive policies. Examining the totality of King’s life and work clarifies where he would have stood on affirmative action, Dyson points out. For example, in Why We Can’t Wait, King wrote:
No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries. Not all the wealth of this affluent society could meet the bill. Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages. The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for American Negroes. The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law.
While Martin Luther King Jr. certainly dreamed of a society unfettered by race, he envisioned it happening only after oppression and racism were destroyed, Dyson argues. Dismantling racism, in King’s view, would require policies that place minorities at an advantage to make up for the lack of opportunities they had endured for centuries.
Law professor Paul Butler agrees, and argues further that calls for colorblind- ness in contemporary America are irresponsible and counterproductive. “You can’t have three hundred years of law and public policy all designed to subordinate a group—to be actively hostile to them—and then say, ‘Hey, everything’s hunky-dory. Now we’re going to be color-blind. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.’” While Butler agrees that race is a social concept, it is a concept that has created social realities, such as racial discrimination, that cannot be instantly debunked at will. In his opinion, advocates for colorblindness “pretend, like all of a sudden, after race existed with a vengeance for three hundred years, that now it doesn’t exist anymore.” He insists that facing reality requires policy makers to “see human beings as human including their race. We won’t be seeing human beings—we won’t be truly seeing—if we’re partially blind. That’s the irony of the color-blind debate. How can we see if we’re blind?”
Echoing Butler’s sentiments, most mainstream civil rights organizations do not support the abolishment of racial categories. For example, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) maintains that racial data collection provides the tools necessary to identify institutional bias when it occurs. Racial statistics help to uncover patterns of discrimination in housing, employment, law enforcement, and health care—necessary information if authorities are to enforce antidiscrimination laws, NAACP analysts point out. Moreover, America would not be able to track its progress in conquering racial discrimination without reliable information about the opportunities that are available to different racial groups. Suppression of such information by banning the use of racial categories, argues former Justice Department attorney Alan Jenkins, amounts to censorship: “It bears noting that facts belong to no one group or agenda, to no ideology or political party. . . . Information and the liberty to use it . . . are hallmarks of a free society. Efforts to suppress [racial] information gathering are threats not merely to the political left or right, but to the truth.”
In the year after Martin Luther King delivered his “Dream” speech, Congress passed the Civil Rights Law of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in hiring, housing, and public accommodations because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. In the twenty-first century, however, analysts and policy makers remain divided over how the civil rights vision can best be advanced. Racism: Current Controversies offers a variety of perspectives on the status of civil rights and race relations, and provides different views on how to eradicate racism and its legacies.