Growing up in southern Idaho among Bircherites, I got an early dose of the visceral hatred that conservatives had for Martin Luther King Jr. The only figure comparable was Muhammad Ali (or Cassius Clay, in the early days), or perhaps, to lesser extent, Malcolm X. I remember how people used to talk about these men through gritted teeth, wishing death on them at the nearest opportunity, and voicing grim satisfaction when it finally befell two of them.
This is why Rick Perlstein's piece in The New Republic last week on conservatives' attempts to claim King's legacy for themselves reveals these efforts to be so ahistorical and factually twisted, since conservatives of the time were the very essence of nearly everything that King stood against.
And more to the point, they still are -- something they prove in the very act of trying to claim him.
Perlstein opens by recalling the great national mourning that was mounted after King's assassination. Some excerpts:
- ... Others demurred. South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond wrote his constituents, "[W]e are now witnessing the whirlwind sowed years ago when some preachers and teachers began telling people that each man could be his own judge in his own case." Another, even more prominent conservative said it was just the sort of "great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they'd break."
That was Ronald Reagan, the governor of California, arguing that King had it coming. King was the man who taught people they could choose which laws they'd break -- in his soaring exegesis on St. Thomas Aquinas from that Birmingham jail in 1963: "Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. ... Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong."
That's not what you hear from conservatives today, of course. What you get now are convoluted and fantastical tributes arguing that, properly understood, Martin Luther King was actually one of them--or would have been, had he lived. But, if we are going to have a holiday to honor history, we might as well honor history. We might as well recover the true story. Conservatives--both Democrats and Republicans--hated King's doctrines. Hating them was one of the litmus tests of conservatism.
... The idea was expounded most systematically in a 567-page book that came out shortly after King's assassination, House Divided: The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King, by one of the right's better writers, Lionel Lokos, and from the conservative movement's flagship publisher, Arlington House. "He left his country a legacy of lawlessness," Lokos concluded. "The civil disobedience glorified by Martin Luther King [meant] that each man had the right to put a kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on laws that met with his favor." Lokos laid the rise of black power, with its preachments of violence, at King’s feet. This logic followed William F. Buckley, who, in a July 20, 1967 column titled "King-Sized Riot In Newark," imagined the dialogue between a rioter and a magistrate:
"You do realize that there are laws against burning down delicatessen stores? Especially when the manager and his wife are still inside the store?" ... "Laws Schmaws. Have you never heard of civil disobedience? Have you never heard of Martin Luther King?"
King was a particular enemy of Chicago's white ethnics for the marches for open housing he organized there in 1966. The next year, the Chicago archdiocese released a new catechism book. "One of the leaders of the Negro people is a brave man named Martin Luther King. ... He preaches the message of Jesus, 'Love one another.'" Chicago Catholic laymen, outraged, demanded an FBI investigation of the local clergy.
Roy at Alicublog notes that one of the conservatives Perlstein identifies among the current crop trying to claim King's legacy, Andrew Busch of the National Review, posted a response to Perlstein wherein he tries to explain that he couldn't embrace the whole of King's legacy, but rather the purely "color-blind" and religion-embracing aspects of it. Otherwise, in fact, there was much in King's legacy to be opposed:
- Aside from the general dislike that conservatives held (and hold) toward civil disobedience under most circumstances, there are a number of other reasons left unaddressed by Perlstein for why conservatives cannot embrace King without reservation. His late endorsement of racial preferences ran counter to his earlier professions of color-blindness; despite his devotion to freedom at home, his co-option by the antiwar movement made him, like thousands of other misguided Americans, accessory to the Stalinization of Indochina; and his personal conduct was not what one would hope for from a Christian minister. On the last count, no one can doubt that King would be a prime candidate for endless accusations of hypocrisy had his public cause been less satisfying to those most inclined to generate such accusations.
Well certainly, he has been a prime candidate for endless accusations of hypocrisy, as well as deep moral turpitude, from figures on the right, notably those most inclined to generate such accusations -- including Andrew Busch in this piece, as well as the various moral scolds of the religious right. It's also a favorite of the racists who put together sites like this. In fact, for many, that's the almost the entirety of their case against King -- oh, that, and his alleged Communism.
(Oddly, these same figures on the right are more hesitant to impugn the morals of such Founding Fathers as Thomas Jefferson, or for that matter such right-wing lions as Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, who might come in for similar scolding. Speaking of hypocrisy.)
Note that Busch is arguing that there was an "early" King who favored color-blind policies, who eventually succumbed to various temptations and ethical depredations to eventually turn about and favor affirmative action. I suppose that this is an improvement on those conservatives who have fraudulently claimed that King actually was opposed to affirmative action, but it is utter bosh nonetheless. As are, for that matter, Busch's subsequent claims to affinity with King, which rest either on this premise or phony characterizations of modern liberalism (i.e., that we are "uncomfortable" with religious talk or moral absolutes).
King was no fool; color-blindness was no mere abstraction for him, but a reality he endeavored to create. And that meant he had to grapple with reality. His attitude about the kinds of solutions needed to deal with that reality never altered significantly.
And reality, in 1965, was that African Americans not only had to struggle out from under the yoke of slavery and its legacy, but they also had overcome a century's worth of racist persecution ever afterward: terrorized by a sytematic campaign of lynching and held in political subjugation by Jim Crow laws in the South; while in the North, they were simply expelled from entire communities and forced to cluster into urban centers where impoverished conditions, fueled by massive job discrimination, reigned. (This "sundown towns" phenomenon, it should be noted, persisted through the 1970s.)
King understood that this was not a semantical abstract, a zero-sum game in which merely declaring the law color-blind would make society so. His goal was not merely an abstract notion of color-blindness, but a functioning color-blind society. He understood, naturally, that you can't simply snap your fingers, declare the laws and the government "color blind," and actually achieve it as a reality overnight.
He understood that one could not, by flipping a switch, overcome decades of acculturation that punished blacks for succeeding -- nothing attracted a lynch crowd, after all, quite like an "uppity" black who improved his lot -- and bred a culture that avoided success on white men's terms. Neither could one simply pass a law and alter decades of social mythology that held black people as innate inferiors and created layers of discrimination that persist even today.
He knew, all too well, that these conditions had created a social infrastructure that could not be changed overnight. That the whole network of connections that are the cornerstone to success in modern American society was built, like suburbs in which they thrive, to favor whites and exclude blacks. And that none of those barriers could be taken down overnight -- indeed, they would not fall without a concerted effort to tear them down, one requiring a good-faith effort on the part of every party, all aimed at creating a truly color-blind society.
As the FAIR piece in the link above observes:
- King was well aware of the arguments used against affirmative action policies. As far back as 1964, he was writing in Why We Can't Wait: "Whenever the issue of compensatory treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic."
King supported affirmative action-type programs because he never confused the dream with American reality. As he put it, "A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro" to compete on a just and equal basis (quoted in Let the Trumpet Sound, by Stephen Oates).
In a 1965 Playboy interview, King compared affirmative action-style policies to the GI Bill: "Within common law we have ample precedents for special compensatory programs.... And you will remember that America adopted a policy of special treatment for her millions of veterans after the war."
In King's teachings, affirmative action approaches were not "reverse discrimination" or "racial preference." King promoted affirmative action not as preference for race over race (or gender over gender), but as a preference for inclusion, for equal oportunity, for real democracy. Nor was King's integration punitive: For him, integration benefited all Americans, male and female, white and non-white alike. And contrary to Gingrich, King insisted that, along with individual efforts, collective problems require collective solutions.
Affirmative action, as conceived and executed, is the antithesis of racial discrimination: It is essentially about creating, for better or worse, a color-blind society, by government fiat -- the idea being that the government can enforce a certain racial makeup within critical social functions (such as college admissions or government hiring) that reflect the racial makeup of the community at large. You can argue against this approach for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it is bound to create certain dysfunctions in the process of moving towards its goal; but you can only pretend that such an enterprise is racist by conceiving of color-blindness as a zero-sum game in which everybody starts with the same opportunity.
The reality today is that King's dream is only partially achieved. The elite, often lily-white nature of the former sundown towns persists at least in part because they have never really been confronted as relics of a racially discriminatory social infrastructure. Instead, the 'burbs are pretty much seen as the embodiment of the American Dream.
Moreover, the underlying racism -- particularly in the form of job discrimination -- persists. Earl Ofari Hutchinson, discussing the attempt to create a racial divide between blacks and Latinos over immigration, observes:
- But several years before the immigration combatants squared off, then University of Wisconsin graduate researcher Devah Pager pointed the finger in another direction, a direction that makes most employers squirm. And that's toward the persistent and deep racial discrimination in the workplace. Pager found that black men without a criminal record are less likely to find a job than white men with criminal records.
Pager's finger-point at discrimination as the main reason for the racial disparity in hiring set off howls of protest from employers, trade groups and even a Nobel Prize winner. They lambasted her for faulty research. Her sample was much too small, they said, and the questions too vague. They pointed to the ocean of state and federal laws that ban racial discrimination. But in 2005 Pager, now a sociologist at Princeton duplicated her study. She surveyed nearly 1,500 private employers in New York City.
She used teams of black and white testers, standardized resumes, and she followed up their visits with telephone interviews with employers. These are the standard methods researchers use to test racial discrimination. The results were exactly the same as in her earlier study, despite the fact that New York has some of the nation's toughest laws against job discrimination.
The old stereotypes about black workers persist in large part because the social infrastructure issues have never been addressed. There is only so much that affirmative action can do, particularly when it is constantly under attack from the right.
At some point, we have to start taking seriously the task of breaking down the very real racial balkanization that still exists in this country demographically, with whites still overwhelmingly dominant in the same communities that for years quietly kept nonwhites out. The barriers are beginning to break down somewhat, but it is still a difficult thing for underprivileged people to find low-income housing in these communities, when doing so is one of the first steps needed for breaking down the barriers to the social networking that is a requisite for minority success. More often than not, these communities still assiduously resist such invasions of their turf.
This is why the following paragraph from Busch is like something straight from the Bizarro Universe:
- Nor can conservatives refrain from honestly weighing the costs as well as the benefits of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. The costs include the danger of legitimizing the ethnic balkanization of America and of crowding out holidays that might better serve as a national glue than a solvent.
Reality check: the ethnic and racial balkanization of America was originated by white people and enforced by them for the better part of a century. It was called "white supremacy," and it led to the extermination of the native peoples as well as the utter subjugation of all other nonwhites, either by slavery or by political and economic disenfranchisement.
This nation legitimized its ethnic balkanization when the Supreme Court issued such rulings as Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson. It granted carte blanche to white lynchers in the South and white eliminationists in the North who did not wish to live as equals with people of other colors. For years, government housing policy specifically encouraged racial balkanization in the form of heavily subsidized all-white housing developments and subsidized federal loans. And we continue to legitimize it by concocting excuses for the lingering job discrimination, as well as the lingering exclusion of blacks and other nonwhites from the elite suburbs, where for some reason no realtor will show them homes.
The only things that have ever broken that balkanization down were the Civil Rights Movement, led by Martin Luther King Jr., and the subsequent laws passed in its wake. To even remotely suggest that celebrating their victory somehow underlines our racial balkanization is total nonsense.
Let me rephrase that: It is total nonsense unless you begin from the premise that Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday is not a holiday for white people.
From there we can proceed to perhaps more honest expressions of the traditional conservative view of civil rights, that voiced by Michael Savage, who recently:
- called "civil rights" a "con" and asserted: "It's a racket that is used to exploit primarily heterosexual, Christian, white males' birthright and steal from them what is their birthright and give it to people who didn't qualify for it."
He topped that off by adding that "Civil rights are used to steal only from the white male -- no one else pays the price."
Perhaps Busch should just give up and follow the lead of the fellows at VDare: admit that Martin Luther King Jr. stood for everything he and his fellow conservatives stand against -- and have since well before the man began his career.