On Monday, the American people celebrated the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., the Baptist minister who led the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. King embraced the philosophy and method of activism called “nonviolent civil disobedience,” meaning that he and his followers were committed both to breaking the unjust segregationist laws of the South and to willingly subjecting themselves to the consequences of their action, such as police brutality and legal punishment. The sacrifice of his followers moved the conscience of a nation and led to the abolition of Jim Crow segregation in the United States.
King famously said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
What about America today? Has this country lived up to Martin Luther King Jr.’s aspirations of racial equality, justice and brotherhood?
Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, argued in the New York Times that the struggle for the advancement of black Americans is far from being over, even though it seems that racial biases have almost completely disappeared from the country—even though Martin Luther King’s dream has been technically realized. He argues that the creation of a color-blind society as an end in itself is precisely what impedes black liberation. Instead, black liberation amounts to the transformation of American society’s institutions, one that takes into account the existence of separate racial identities in such a way that historically-white institutions make reparations to black people. Muhammad argues that such a struggle is the continuation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle; as the reverend said in his final book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”, white people’s goodwill towards black people does not suffice for the emancipation of black people.
Muhammad is not alone in advocating for identity-politics and rejecting the assimilation of black people into a color-blind and “melting pot” American society. Black Lives Matter (BLM), a movement born out of the protest of police brutality targeted specifically at black Americans, shares this vision. It is committed to black identity, black international solidarity, institutional reparation and the replacement of the Western nuclear family with extended “black villages.”
Today, the American Left sanctions and even embraces such a vision of black liberation—and of society in general—with its emphasis on multiculturalism, internationalism, “the celebration of diversity,” affirmative action and political correctness. Such a vision of black emancipation and separationism is wrong-headed and is in contradiction with Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideals.
My background has informed my opinion. I come from Lebanon, a country made up of 18 officially-recognized religious communities (mostly Muslim and Christian) that each have very strong communal identities. Their sense of sharing the same national ideals and national identity is very weak. Even though Lebanon is technically a democracy, its institutions are totally dysfunctional, paralyzed by a mode of government that relies on power-sharing quotas administered to each religious community based, in principle, on its demographic weight. This leads to a corrupt sectarian regime, in which politicians are more interested in filling their pockets and enhancing the power of their sect than advancing the common good.
America is at a turning point in its history. By 2060, so-called “minorities”—Americans of Asian, African, Latin American and Middle Eastern descent—will make up 56 percent of the US population, meaning that there will no longer be a majority of European descent. If these minority groups develop a sense of belongingness to the American nation and adhere to its fundamental ideals and institutions rooted in Protestant Christianity and the Enlightenment, then America will be equipped for good governance, ready to face the challenges of tomorrow. But if they instead unite around racial and ethnic agendas, the United States’ current racial tensions would expand mightily.
Many people would argue that the rejection of identity politics for the sake of defending America’s Enlightenment-inspired ideals and institutions is a contradiction in itself. Enlightenment philosophers, the Founding Fathers and all those who formed America’s greatest institutions—from universities to innovative companies—were propertied white Christian males who lived during times of racial injustice. Accordingly, their ideals and institutions should either be “reformed” to repair the damage they did to black people and other marginalized groups, or should disappear from their lives altogether.
But what this vision misses is that those ideals and institutions are fundamentally universal; they include principles such as the equality of all people, the right to a fair trial, the American Dream (the idea that any person should have the means to reach their full potential), freedom and rule of the people. Indeed, socialist activists, civil rights activists, religious freedom advocates and feminists all have precisely used the institutional framework created by those propertied white Christian males to uphold the ideals of the Enlightenment in times of injustice.
Martin Luther King Jr. had so much appeal in this country precisely because the ideals he defended were so American. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” addressed to white church leaders whom he felt had abandoned the Civil Rights Movement, King wrote,”We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America's destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here...We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”
Many people, akin to Khalil Gibran Muhammad, argue that identity-politics and the demands for “racial” reparations are a legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. But this can’t be right. Identity-politics movements such as Black Power and the Nation of Islam were virulently criticized by the reverend. In fact, his “Letter” goes on to lambast those “black nationalist groups” for being a “force of bitterness and hatred” that “comes perilously close to advocating violence,” but also for having “lost faith in America...repudiated Christianity” and “concluded that the white man is an incorrigible ‘devil.’”
In light of this argumentaire, an objection one could make in defense of racial reparations is that reparations do not aim to foster separate black identities but rather to correct structural inequalities, which is the requirement for having a color-blind society of equal opportunity. However, according to Shelby Steele, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, institutions do not commit to the concept of reparations out of means-tested belief that they will be correcting structural inequalities that stem from racism, but rather for the sake of cultivating an acceptable image in a society rife with white guilt and black victimization. Steele believes that victimization reinforces a black communal sense of identity on the basis of grievance at the cost of individuality. For instance, success in many black communities has been valued as a measure of how much due reparation their community has obtained as opposed to what endeavors their individuals have achieved.
America’s reclamation would thus lie in the adherence of all its communities to the ideals that founded it, regardless of race or ethnicity. Wherever instances of institutional and individual racism remain in America, they need to be tackled, but in a way that binds Americans around their universal ideals, not fosters divisiveness. It is certainly difficult for historically marginalized communities like the black community to move on from past injustices and declare their allegiance to a nation that oppressed them for centuries. Perhaps the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is here to remind us of the need for unity and forgiveness.
Emile Riachi is a Trinity sophomore. His column, “the voice of dissent,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.