If MLK were alive today
What would Martin Luther King Jr. think about critical race theory?
As an educated man, he might be offended by the latest bright move to challenge nonbelievers to puns and make them not “define” CRT so they can’t fight back. The downside is that the definitions used by believers themselves are vague. The simplest is: Everything good that has happened to white Americans and everything bad that has happened to black Americans from 1619 to the present day can be traced back to slavery.
No matter what definition you write on the gold tablets, the result is that people are demanding more black sitcom characters with the same fervor as they are demanding that Thomas Jefferson’s name be removed from high schools, believing that both things make a difference. But as historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad set “The Dr. Indeed, the King we remember was the symbolic beacon of the civil rights movement. But the dr. King we forget worked within institutions to transform broken systems.”
Most people who believe in CRT avoid the practical questions that recognition might bring. It’s about empty faith, faith without the possibility of proof. Like any zealot, they just to know It’s true – sometimes because things didn’t work out in their own lives and they can’t be responsible, and they think we should reshape all of society based on their interpretation of lived experiences.
Definitions aside, most of the time CRT people just wait for something bad to happen to black Americans, or on dry days relive a bad event from the past (how many times does Emmett Till have to die?) and say, “There, that’s it, systemic racism.” If anyone objects, shout that person down, get off the platform, or cancel. It’s all a far cry from what King wrote to all of us from his prison cell in muggy Birmingham: “The means we employ must be as pure as the ends we seek.” King played the long game, not the for daily clicks.
Playing for the Systemic Racism team means willingly ruling out any discussion that could lead to undesirable outcomes. So you have to ignore cases where black Americans are doing well and cases where white Americans are doing badly. You also need to put people as diverse as Hasidic Jews, 19th-century Irish illiterates, and Louis CK into a category called “white.”
As supporters of “systemic racism,” you must not question why racist whites have “allowed” Asians, Hispanics, Persian real estate agents, and Ghanaians to succeed. They don’t want to talk about how all sorts of groups have been successful in America. (If we’re a white supremacist nation, we’re pretty bad at it.) Nor need you wonder why the racist police force is equally poor in racism and fails to account for the many non-whites who cross their gun sights in adequate numbers to shoot down Asian, Indian and Hispanic neighborhoods.
Belief in America’s unique racism also requires not asking many questions about how, of the 12 million kidnapped from Africa into slavery, just about 388,000 people were brought to the United States. One cannot talk about slavery as part of economies around the world and across millennia. You can’t wonder why BLM doesn’t focus on the Dutch, Arabs or British who helped establish the slave trade infrastructure. Belief in systemic racism demands that you see slavery, which existed worldwide and in North America before the United States, as a distinctly American thing.
You have to believe there is a mass movement for not teaching racism when we learned about Little Rock 40 years ago even in my own lousy public high school (the reason being the famous photo of the troops doing it escorting young black girls to school is famous because we’ve all seen it) and Brown. You must be comfortable turning George Floyd into a hero while ignoring George Floyd the drug addict. They must be content to ignore the Thomas Jefferson of the Declaration of Independence as yet another oppressor.
Martin Luther King, on the other hand, understood the founders—men of their 18th century—as clearly as he saw the scope of progress on a biblical (rather than Internet) timescale. In his August 1963 address from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King said said “When the architects of our republic wrote the grand words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they signed a promissory note that every American should become heir to.” It is possible that King sees himself as Jefferson’s intellectual heir rather than Nikole Hannah-Jones would see his.
Supporters of critical race theory must deny the economic advances made by black Americans after World War II, which significantly narrowed the wage gap even though segregation was still widespread. And don’t ask why, despite anti-racialism, this progress stopped declined over the years. No talk of slave-descended West Indies and African immigrants doing better than US-born black citizens, even better than many white Americans. (The median income for American households from Nigerian Lineage is $68,000 compared to $61,000 for US households as a whole.)
Fixing systemic racism is somehow believing that it’s someone else’s job. No talk of low turnout for black voters or how most of the shootings in our cities are black on black and not carried out by cops. Nothing please about individual responsibility or single parent families and runaway fathers or fetal alcohol syndrome and teenage mothers or the scourge of inner city gangs and drug use. No, things are caused through systemic racism, we must believe so they are not the fault or responsibility of any one individual.
We have to dismiss the lack of action against this perceived systemic racism by a two-term black president with two black attorneys general and later a black vice president because somehow that wasn’t their job or their responsibility — not to mention the fact that they were the system in systemic, literally ruling the government.
We may remember Obama’s Justice Department described Failures across the Chicago Police Department, the city then run by Obama’s henchman Rahm Emanuel said excessive violence was mostly directed at blacks. Not much was done, and Biden, another of Obama’s henchmen, appointed Rahm ambassador to Japan. It was under Obama’s black Attorney General in 2013 that the most important provisions were the Voting Rights Act dismantled.
Understanding that charlatans come in all colors, King demanded that we judge people by their character, not the color of their skin. He also believed in the responsibility to act and indeed found that to be the soul of his movement. “If the unspeakable cruelties of slavery could not stop us,” he once said, “the resistance we now face will surely fail.”
It may be unfair to put words in the mouths of the dead, and indeed there are people reading this who question the decency of a white person, even as they write critically of Martin Luther King. Let’s put it this way: What will happen when those who still understand King (not to mention the oh-so-serious students with purple hair and lily-white skin) realize that his successors, the critical racial theorists, built their message on one have basis of untruths, hate, hypocrisy, violence and pure showman’s talk?
Lots to think about on this day, remembering MLK.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Mean Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of World War II Japan, and Ghosts by Tom Joad: A History of the 99 Percent.