I could kick myself for not having seen this coming. What has happened is that on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a federal holiday that took place yesterday, antiracists decided that they could not let the seeming disparity between King’s views and those of modern CRT go unaddressed. No, they had to go back, cherry-pick from King’s writings, and declare, as Kimberlé Crenshaw does below, that King was an advocate of Critical Race Theory (CRT) before the theory existed! His famous claim that people should be judged by the content of their character, and not by the color of their skin, has for a long time rankled those who think that pigmentation remains, and should remain, the most important trait of anyone.
And so, just as the Progressive Left tries to erase racist histories that don’t comport with modern views, people like Crenshaw (a professor at the UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School and a founder of CRT) are trying to recalibrate King’s views so he fits perfectly into the Procrustean bed of CRT. The past must be made compatible with the present, but if the past is bad, it must be erased.
Crenshaw has a long op-ed in the Los Angeles Times (below) to this effect, but of course whether King was a CRT-ite before CRT existed depends on what you consider to be CRT, and of course it varies widely among different people. (To many Republicans, CRT means the undeniable assertion that “racism existed—and still exists—and we must acknowledge it”.) There’s a lot of room between that view and those of the most famous modern CRT-ist, Ibram X. Kendi.
Click to read, or inquire for a copy if it’s paywalled:
So was King really that far ahead of his time? I’ll use several definitions of CRT, beginning with one in Forbes by Ilana Redstone, founder of Diverse Perspectives Consulting and the CEO of The Mill Center for the Advancement of Critical Thinking, as well as a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her definition, set out in “A straightforward primer on critical race theory (and why it matters)” has several aspects.
Now Dr. King isn’t with us, so we can’t really say how he’d react to Redstone’s tenets, though surely he’d agree with many of them. What I think he’d decry is the kind of “performative racism” described by people like John McWhorter. In fact, I hope McWhorter write’s a post on “MLK and CRT.”
It’s also true, as Crenshaw notes, that King’s agenda went far beyond “civil rights for blacks”. He was against the Vietnam War, was concerned about class- as well as race-based poverty, and held progressive-style views on affordable housing. Crenshaw adds this:
It’s no accident that the firestorm over critical race theory has singed King’s message: King was, in fact, a critical race theorist before there was a name for it. A core observation of the theory is the recognition that the promise of liberation extends beyond the elimination of formal segregation and individual-level prejudice. Critical race theory explores how racial inequality was historically structured into the fabric of the republic, reinforced by law, insulated by the founding Constitution and embedded into the infrastructure of American society. Similarly, King observed in 1967 that “the doctrine of white supremacy was embedded in every textbook and preached in practically every pulpit,” entrenched as “a structural part of the culture.”
several tenants embraced by progressive liberals, including the fact of “systemic racism”, which, however, was embedded far more deeply in government and organizations in King’s time than in ours. But on to the definition. I’ll put my own comments flush left, while quotes from Crenshaw or Pluckrose are indented.
CRT is a theoretical perspective that asserts that race is always about inequality and domination. CRT has a few main tenets, some of which can be (over)simplified as follows:
1. Colorblind racism—Deemphasizing the role of race and racism, including to focus on concepts of merit, is itself a manifestation of racism.
I’m not sure that King dwelt on this, as although he did decry racism, of course, I don’t remember him spending a lot of time calling people “racists” beyond the most blatant racism of the South. But he certainly did not argue, as does Robin Di Angelo, that all white people are marinated in racism. Here’s what Crenshaw says, though:
Contrary to countless assertions from the right, King did not endorse colorblindness. It wasn’t the remedy for dismantling the ugly realities that white supremacy had produced. Like today’s critical race theorists, King understood that American racism was systemic and demanded systemic remedies. He was forthright in acknowledging that anti-Black racism “was not a consequence of superficial prejudice but was systemic.” Throughout his career, King set his sights on institutional-level change, calling for solutions built on the race-conscious analysis of inequalities across our society.
Times and laws have changed in the last sixty years; would King still say this?
2. Interest convergence—Members of the dominant group will only support equality when it’s in their best interest to do so.
To some extent King did express this view, but also appealed, as did earlier abolitionists, to the moral sentiments of people, and activated those sentiments by staging nonviolent protests that would gin up sympathy by provoking racist brutality. His emphasis on nonviolence by the protestors, though, puts him at odds with modern CRT advocates, some of whom see little wrong with violence accompanying antiracist demonstrations. King did believe, however, that we didn’t have time to wait for people’s sentiments to change: that we had to force the change by either creating incidents that would change ideas, or enact laws forcing compliance by those who despised integration. With the laws, he thought, would eventually come tolerance.
3. Race and racism are always tied together. Race is a construct meant to preserve white dominance over people of color, while making it seem like life is about meritocracy.
I don’t remember King ever decrying meritocracy, nor claiming that all white people are invested in maintaining dominance over people of color. Nor do I remember him making the Kendi-an statement that inequities—unequal representation—is always a sign of racism.
4. Inattention to systemic racism—An unwillingness to recognize the full force of systemic racism as determining disparities between groups is a denial of the reality of racism today (and evidence of ignorance at best and racism at worst).
See above. We no longer live in King’s day when the law and common practice did indeed make much of racism systemic. This is not to say that it’s gone: in many cases (I’m talking to you, Republicans), it’s gone underground, manifested in Republican backed bills to restrict voting eligibility and ban the teaching of CRT. (I oppose all such bills as restrictions on academic freedom.) But the bandying about of “systemic racism”, as if it’s baked into every business, university, and corporation, is misleading and often wrong.
When I wrote about Redstone’s piece last summer, I added a few more tenets of my own:
I’d add to that the following three points, which are mine. (Actually, points 5 and 6 come from Ibram Kendi and point 7 from Robin DiAngelo and many others):
5. (Really a supplement to point 4): Inequalities in representation or groups, for example disproportionately low numbers of people of color in STEM fields, is prima facie evidence of current and ongoing racism in those fields and not a historical residuum of racism in the past.
See above. I don’t think King would adhere to the Kendi-an view here.
6. The only way to rectify this kind of systemic racism resulting from ongoing discrimination is to discriminate in favor of minorities (i.e., affirmative action, dismantling meritocracies, etc.). As Kendi said, ““The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.”
Crenshaw says this:
King invoked a “bank of justice” to be mobilized against the many structures of racial oppression to ultimately realize “the security of justice” for all Americans. This commitment explicitly extended to the mode of race-conscious practice that now goes by the name of affirmative action.
As you can read in several places (e.g, here and here), King did indeed favor affirmative action, but action based not just on race but on class. Whether he’d favor extending this action for an indefinite time, as seems to be happening now, is something we don’t know.
7. Every white person, whether they know it or not, is a racist, embodying, even unconsciously, the tenets of white supremacy instantiated in point 3 above.
Critical Race Theory: An Introduction describes it as a departure from liberal Civil Rights approaches:
Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.
and sets out four key tenets [JAC: these are similar to some of the tenets given above]
8. First, racism is ordinary, not aberrational—“normal science,” the usual way society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country.
This is a claim that racism is everywhere. All the time. It’s just the water we swim in. It’s also claimed that most people of colour agree with this. In reality, people of colour differ on this although a greater percentage of black people believe it to be true than white people.
I withhold statements about this, as I’m not significantly conversant with everything King ever said. I do argue, however, that he did not consider every white person to be racist or supportive of racism. I think self-flagellation of the DiAngelo stripe would embarrass King, and he’d see it as divisive and counterproductive.
9. Second, most would agree that our system of white-over-color ascendancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material, for the dominant group.
This means that this system, which has just been asserted to exist everywhere, is valued by white people both psychologically and in practical terms. Many white people would disagree that they regard racism positively.
See above. King might have agreed, but he would not argue, I think, that every white person is racist because it serves their purposes, much less that every white person IS racist.
10. A third theme of critical race theory, the “social construction” thesis, holds that race and races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient.
This argues that races are social constructs rather than biological realities which is true – “populations” are the biological categories and don’t map neatly onto how we understand race – and that society has categorised and recategorised races according to custom, which is also true. [JAC: I’d take issue with the claim that there is no biological “reality” at all to populations, races, or whatever you call ethnic groups. The classical definition of “race” is incorrect, but the view that races have no biological differences and are thus completely socially constructed, is also wrong.]
I’ll largely pass on this one. As a biologist, I do consider that groups like “black” or “East Asian” or “Polynesian” are biologically meaningful, even if the concept of fixed, highly differentiated and finite races is a “social construct.” I am not sure whether King ever spoke about the “social construction” of racism.
11. A final element concerns the notion of a unique voice of color. Coexisting in somewhat uneasy tension with antiessentialism, the voice-of-color thesis holds that because of their different histories and experiences with oppression, black, American Indian, Asian, and Latino writers and thinkers may be able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that the whites are unlikely to know. Minority status, in other words, brings with it a presumed competence to speak about race and racism.
Again, I largely pass, though I also know that King worked with too many white people during the Sixties to hold the naive view that all blacks were more competent to speak about racism than all whites. And I suspect he didn’t say much, if anything, about “intersecting oppressions.”
As you see, my ability to address this topic is limned by my limited experience with King’s writings and speeches. But I do get the impression that Crenshaw is cherry-picking King’s quotes to make her case. More important, though, is this: why do we need to make such a case? I am sure that King’s views would be considerably divergent from those of people like Ibram Kendi. So why force them into bed together?
This is done, of course, so that people can posit an uninterrupted continuity of ideas about racism, just as the 1619 Project posits a historical continuity of American racism going right back to the American Revolution.
King is not here to answer these claims or to speak for himself, and yet we wonder how he’d react. But I will maintain that even though his comment about “colorblindedness” has been the sole mantra of King cited by those who want to perpetuate bigotry, in the end the goal must be not an America divided, comprising mutually hostile groups with different interests.
Here are the last bits of King’s most famous oration:
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. I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day down in Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right down in Alabama little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims’ pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that, let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.
This is a dream of equality, not of division: a call to eliminate the “jangling discords of our nation”. And if true harmony, colorblindness and unity are not the ultimate goals of modern antiracism (yes, for some modern purposes we must pay attention to “race”), well, I’ll stick with King’s program.