Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Wishful Thinking about Dr. King


John Rosenberg writes:

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is seeking nominations for its 2010 “Fulfilling the Dream” award, an annual honor bestowed upon those who personify and promote “the ideals of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” One of the 2009 winners was “Students United for Nebraska, the student coalition that fought a constitutional ban on race- and gender-based affirmative action (the ban passed).”

Giving an award honoring Martin Luther King’s goals to a group that opposed a measure prohibiting the state from discriminating on the basis of race suggests several other awards in the same spirit that could be given:


  • A George Wallace “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” Award from the University of Alabama to the individual or group that has done the most to promote the racial integration of Alabama schools and colleges;

    . . . and so on.

    I’m a huge fan of Rosenberg and his blog, but I’m afraid I’m not convinced.

    No doubt, King was a great leader who helped urge the country to redress a serious wrong. He rightfully occupies a position of great respect in American history. But participants in our current racial debates often see him not just as worthy of respect but as infallible — they feel the need to claim he would have supported them, and see this support as crucial. The idea, so far as I can tell, is that King is the antithesis of racism — if you agree with King, you’re definitely not racist, and if you disagree, you might just be a racist. So whatever you believe, it really helps if you can argue plausibly that King believed the same thing.

    Regarding affirmative action, the problem for modern conservatives is that their arguments aren’t all that plausible. If you not only respect and consult but defer to King on racial matters, you probably need to support something very close to racial preferences.

    Sure, in “I Have a Dream,” King envisioned a world in which everyone is colorblind — content of their character and all that. Sure, in his years in the spotlight, he championed the forbidding of unequal treatment that hurt blacks. But the former does not preclude a belief that in order to get to a colorblind society, you need preferences; and the latter doesn’t preclude a belief in unequal treatment that helps blacks.

    When he addressed the matter directly, he was coy. He suggested that the American government should actively atone for slavery, even referring to his desired remedy as “preference” — but whenever he offered specifics, he advocated a huge government program based on class, not race. I find this article particularly helpful (skip down to the graf beginning “King was even more clear on . . .”). Here are some bullet points I compiled based on the article and other sources:


  • In Why We Can’t Wait, he wrote, “Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. . . . [but] it is obvious that if a man enters the starting line of a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some incredible feat in order to catch up.”





  • Immediately after these words, King related without criticism higher-ed policies in India that preferred untouchables, adding that America likewise needed ways to atone for “centuries of injustices.”


  • In Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, he wrote, “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, in order to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis.





  • When he spelled out “something special” (a formulation he used in both books), he suggested a huge aid program for the poor (a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged”), passed for the purpose of atoning for slavery but that would apply to the poorest whites as well.

    Now, let’s put all this evidence together in context: (A) King supported what he called “compensatory or preferential treatment” for blacks and saw fit to use another country’s preference policy as a loose example of what America should do; (B) what King actually proposed was, in effect, a giant wealth transfer from whites to blacks for the purpose of atoning for slavery; (C) modern-style race-based preferences weren’t politically feasible back then, and King was a very astute politician. How likely is it really that King would oppose preferences if he were alive today?

      Maybe he’d have changed his mind in the interim. His emphasis was always on building up blacks so that they could compete neck-and-neck with whites in a colorblind society — today, we’ve tried the affirmative-action approach for decades and still haven’t achieved this goal, so maybe he’d think it time for a different approach. But it’s simply a fact that King was fine with government policies designed to help blacks above and beyond mandating equal treatment before the law and by private businesses. If conservatives are to argue that such policies are the wrong way to go — and they should — they need to admit they think King was wrong.


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