King Called For Much More Than Being Color Blind
There seems to be a strange phenomenon in the political climate of race today.
I first noticed it during the 2010 Supreme Court confirmation of Elena Kagan. The search for her liberal past seemed to center around the fact that Kagan had clerked for Supreme Court judge and civil rights veteran Thurgood Marshall. Working for Marshall, who served the lead attorney who argued the case of Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court, was taken as evidence, not of Kagan’s qualification, but as evidence of racial bias. In the political climate created by the culture of color blindness, the attempt to try and ignore that anyone has a race at all, suddenly anyone who worked on behalf of racial equality is now at fault.
An odd example of color blindness run amok came during President George W. Bush’s promotion of his memoir that same year. He cited the now infamous statement by rapper Kanye West that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” as the worst moment in his presidency. Besides from the strange fact that the horrors of September 11, 2001 or the trauma of death and destruction in the wake of Hurricane Katrina didn’t top his list, Bush’s pain makes sense in this new color –blind political world. West was the most hurtful because he mentioned race at all. West could not and did not ignore that the majority of people left behind during the hurricane and subsequent failure of the levees were African American. His outrage was racialized, that is like many African Americans, he felt that race did matter, that the incompetent reaction to the storm came because its victims were understood as black and poor, framed by the media as looters and criminals rather than flood victims.
Current presidential candidate Ron Paul insists that King is one of his favorite historical figures. However Paul criticizes the major legal achievement of King’s civil rights efforts, insisting that the 1964 Civil Rights Act is unconstitutional because it forces privately-owned businesses to serve all customers regardless of race. Meanwhile Paul frames himself as a champion of civil rights.
This color blind campaign pushes the idea that anyone who can pretend that race doesn’t exist can claim the mantle of the movement. Anyone can claim that they were supporters of civil rights, as long as they support the catch –phrases of “freedom and liberty.” Any understanding that the civil rights movement was a long struggle to contest disfranchisement, racial violence, and Jim Crow segregation through the passage of laws that would protect the citizenship rights of African Americans is gone. Civil rights is now understood to be a movement to get everyone to pretend that they don’t notice race or the continuing effects of racial discrimination.
Martin Luther King’s original call to have his children judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” was and is an admirable idea. No one wants perceptions of racial inferiority to shape our country. But King was not insisting that Americans deny that race exists at all, particularly as we face the particular difficulties of race in the twenty-first century. As the country faces down a long-term recession, discussions about how to assist the poor, support the unemployed, and buoy struggling schools require honest conversation. We must remember that coded language and attempts to hide the impact race has on economic outcomes today, does a disservice in a time when marginal communities of color must be assisted. We will need our sight in order to fulfill King’s vision.