In an OpEd piece today, “Affirmative Action Foes Have No Link To King Legacy,” Cornelius Bynum, an assistant professor of history at Purdue, offers yet another criticism of those of us who adhere to the principle Martin Luther King articulated eloquently in his “I Have A Dream” speech.
As I argued at some length here, not only the appeal but even the actual meaning of that principle is not dependent on what King may have thought when he uttered it, and certainly not on what he may have come to think 45 years later if he had lived.
As I wrote in that post,
nothing seems to send preferentialists around the bend and over the top faster than critics of preferences quoting King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, as we always do.
And they always respond with one version or another of “if King were alive today” he would be a strong advocate of racial preferences. I have some reservations about this assertion, but on balance I suspect it is true. After all, all King’s followers, the NAACP (which had advocated a strong version of colorblindness in court for decade after decade), and virtually the entire Democratic party did an about face on colorblindness starting in the late 1960s, and there is no compelling reason to suppose that King himself would have stood against this trend.
Taking a page from the original meaning book, however, we can see that the proper response to the posthumous King’s probable position is, So what? King’s specific intent does not determine the meaning of the principle he evoked, either for his contemporaries or for subsequent generations…. Of course in this case the text in question is not so dense and opaque, like “due process” or even “equal protection.” What part of wanting people to be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin is so difficult to understand?
Writing, as I am, about fifteen minutes from Monticello, it seems all too obvious to me that there are some ideals that are not discredited simply because their authors fail to live up to them.
The fact (if it is a fact) that had King lived he might have abandoned his long-standing commitment to colorblind equality, as the NAACP et. al. did, neither changes the meaning of the principle he articulated in 1963 nor compels anyone else to join his ghost in abandoning it.
Returning to the example at hand, Prof. Bynum’s own argument for preserving racial preferences, i.e., for abandoning the principle of colorblind equal treatment, is singularly unpersuasive. He writes:
Recent data from the United States Census Bureau showing that more than 22 percent of African-Americans live in poverty and more than 30 percent of African-Americans under the age of 18 live in poverty leaves me to wonder whether the nation has made good on its promises of democracy.
Prof. Bynum’s argument “leaves me to wonder” about what connection he sees between high rates of black poverty and preferential admission of primarily middle and upper class blacks (a significant number of whom are not African-American but African-OtherNationalities) to selective colleges, graduate schools, and professional schools.
If black poverty is the primary problem to be solved, it would seem a no-brainer that anti-poverty programs make more sense than policies undermining the principle of colorblind equality that in fact do little or nothing to address poverty but do quite a lot to undermine the argument that racial discrimination is wrong.