What Would MLK Think of CRT?
What would Dr. King think about critical race theory?
As an educated man, he might recognize it has little underpinning. His intellect would almost certainly be offended by the latest woke gambit of challenging unbelievers (“opponents”) to word games, tricking them into not being able to “define” CRT so they can’t oppose it. The con is definitions believers themselves use are squirmy.
The simplest definition is everything good that happened to whites and everything bad that happened to blacks from 1619 up to this moment is because of slavery, which ended over 150 years ago. Passive victims are antithetical to King’s oratory of rising up and overcoming. CRT on the other hands seeks to define America primarily via its past and ongoing failures.
No matter which definition you write on the golden tablets, the result is people demanding more black sitcom characters with the same zeal as demanding Thomas Jefferson’s name be stripped off high schools, and believing both things accomplish something. Thus whatever good ideas might sneak into any discussion of symbolism post-King are almost immediately squelched by some of the dumbest things ever said aloud about institutions and naming. Yet as historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad put it “The Dr. King we choose to remember was indeed 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 systemic racism avoid questions. It’s all about empty faith, belief without the possibility of proof. Like any zealot, they simply know it is true because things haven’t worked out in their own lives and they cannot be responsible and they think we should reshape all of society based on their interpretation of lived experiences.
Definitions aside, CRT folk mostly just wait for something bad to happen to blacks, or on dry days resurrect some 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, they shout that person down, deplatform or cancel them. That is all a long way from what King wrote to us all from his jail cell in sweltering Birmingham, saying “the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.” King played the long game, not the one for daily clicks.
Playing for Team Systemic Racism means the willful ruling out of bounds discussions which could lead to unwelcome conclusions. So, you must ignore cases of blacks doing well, and ignore cases of whites doing poorly (e.g., most of West Virginia.) You must also dump people as diverse as Hasidic Jews, 19th century illiterate Irish immigrants, and Louis C.K. into a category called “white.” You must ignore how actual avowed supremacist groups like the KKK and the Nazis treated people — white Nazis killed white Jews, and white supremacist groups like the KKK opposed white immigration from southern Europe. You would think white-on-white would be counter-evidential to systemic racism.
As a systemic racism supporter you must not question why racist whites have “allowed” Asians, Hispanics, Persian real estate agents, and whatever, Ghanaians, to succeed. You don’t want to talk about how all sorts of groups have found success in America. If we are a white supremacist nation, we are quite bad at it. You must also not wonder why the racist police are equally poor at racism, failing to gun down in appropriate numbers the many non-whites who cross their gun sights in Asian, Indian, and Hispanic neighborhoods.
To believe some sort of system underlies the state of blacks in America for four hundred years, you must also ignore in the supposed quest for white supremacy things like whites doing/voting for/supporting/paying with their lives to fight the Civil War to end slavery, the Civil Rights Acts, the Great Society, affirmative action, and laws against redlining. While not everything works as it should, systemic racism deals in simplistic — black and white — terms. You must insist no real progress has been made over hundreds of years, that the abolition of actual slavery was just the overture for systemic racism.
Belief in systemic racism also requires not asking a lot of questions about how of the 12 million blacks abducted into slavery out of Africa, only about 300,000 landed in the U.S. The millions of others went elsewhere, where apparently there is not systemic racism today.
Also, you will not want to talk about how slavery was part of the economies of nations across the globe for millennia. You would want to know why BLM isn’t demanding to defund the Dutch, Arabs, or the British, who helped create the slave trade infrastructure. Systemic racism demands you see slavery, which existed globally and in North America before there was an America, as a distinctly American thing. You have to believe there exists a mass movement to not teach about racism when even in my own lousy public high school 40 years ago we learned about Little Rock (the reason the famous photo of the troops escorting the young black girl to school is famous is because we’ve all seen it) and Brown.
You have to be comfortable turning George Floyd into a hero while ignoring George Floyd the drug addict. At the same time, you must be comfortable ignoring Thomas Jefferson the hero of the Declaration of Independence as just another rapist.
King on the other hand clearly understood the Founders, men of their 18th century, as clearly as he saw the scope of progress on a more Biblical than Internet time scale. In his August 1963 address from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King said “when the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” It is possible King might see himself more Jefferson’s intellectual heir than he would see Nikole Hannah-Jones as his.
CRT adherents must disavow how blacks made economic progress after World War II, significantly closing the wage gap even while segregation was still widespread. And don’t ask why this progress stopped even though racial animus declined over the years. No talking about how immigrants from the West Indies and Africa, descended from slaves, fare better than U.S.-born blacks, even better than many whites. The median income for American households of Nigerian ancestry is $68k, compared with $61k for U.S. households overall.
Fixing systemic racism also means believing it is someone else’s job. No talk about low turnout rates for black voters, or how most shootings in our cities are black-on-black and not cop-on-black. Nothing please about individual responsibility, or single parent families and runaway dads, or fetal alcohol syndrome and teenage moms, or the scrounge of inner city gangs and drug use.
Nope, those things are caused by systemic racism we must believe, so they’re not black people’s fault or responsibility. Dr. King believed instead in the responsibility to act, and indeed based the soul of his movement on it — things could be made better, saying “If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail.”
We must all dismiss the lack of action on systemic racism by a two-term black president with two black attorneys general, and later by a black VP, because somehow that was not their job or their responsibility except for that fact that they were the system in systemic, running the government.
We remember Obama’s Department of Justice described failures throughout the Chicago Police Department, the city then run by Obama’s stooge Rahm Emanuel, saying excessive force was chiefly aimed at blacks. Not much was done, and Biden, another Obama stooge, went on to appoint Rahm ambassador to Japan. It was under Obama’s black attorney general in 2013 key provisions of the Voting Rights Act were dismantled. King understood charlatans come in all colors, and so demanded we judge people by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.
It is maybe unfair to put words in the mouths of the dead, and indeed there are people reading this who question the propriety of a Caucasian even writing critically about Dr. King. So let’s try it this way: what will happen when those who still understand Dr. King, never mind the oh-so-earnest creamy undergrads with purple hair, realize King’s successors, the critical race theorists, have built their message on a foundation of untruths, hypocrisy, lack of responsibility, hate, violence, and plain carny talk? That’s how in 2022 we get Martin Luther King Day without the values King embodied.
A lot to think about on this day, remembering MLK.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.