Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He gets a whole day because he was at the forefront of one of the most important movements in the history of this nation. This August marks the 60th anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech in which he spoke the famous words which embody that movement: “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.”
That sentence is his legacy. It’s noble and aspirational. It conveys all that we should be. We’re all familiar with it, and what it means.
Why, then, don’t we act like it?
Despite his words, his life, and the Civil Rights Movement, our society regards race as an overarching, primary characteristic. We don’t live in a color-blind society, and in spite of everything Rev. King strove for, we’re now told that to even be color-blind is to be racist. We’ve forgotten his legacy. Just a couple of days ago the NHL announced a job fair in Florida at which whites were not permitted, a blatantly discriminatory act in overt violation of both Federal and Florida State law. But plenty of people don’t see a problem with it as long as it discriminates only against whites, and so the NHL plans a whole job fair based on race. I’ll be called racist just for pointing out that it’s wrong.
It begs the question: is this what Martin Luther King envisioned 60 years ago? Is this what he wanted? I believe most people recognize the answer to be “no.” Rev. King’s dream of seeing character rather than race still seems to be very far away due to this hyper-focus on race.
It wasn’t always this way. To understand why it is now, we need to review a bit of history. Then we need to overcome it. Then we can begin to realize Rev. King’s dream.
The Sociology of Race
Race is an inescapable aspect of what we are, determined by our DNA, and impossible to change. However, it says nothing about who we are, and that’s the essence of that memorable passage in Rev. King’s speech. The only influence race has on who we are is in the learned cultural practices shared by people who share the same race and geography, and how others treat us based on our race.
Humans have a natural tendency to seek the company of those who are like us, in one or more respects. In other words, we self-segregate. This can be along many lines, but race is a very obvious indicator, because not only is our race impossible to change, but it’s also nearly impossible to hide. Physical characteristics such as skin, eye, and hair color, and even build, almost always give away racial traits at a glance.
Historically, before cross-continental travel was made easy, almost everyone in a given part of the world shared similar racial characteristics, so self-segregation was primarily on the basis of traits other than race. This could be tribe/clan, class, socio-economic status, religion, or even profession. Even within very small communities that have everything else in common, people often self-segregate based on age and sex. Old women will get together to talk and chide the young pack of boys who just recklessly broke yet another thing. Even in America today, people who are all the same race still naturally self-segregate by sports interest, musical interest, or social groups, sometimes violently (think The Outsiders). The Red River Rivalry between UT and OU is a good modern-day, non-violent, football-ized example of such a dynamic where race isn’t a factor at all.
This self-segregating is a natural function of human behavior because associating with people like ourselves provides familiarity and comfort and a sense of security. Conversely, we naturally feel a sense of insecurity with people who are not like us. That’s where racial friction comes from, and it has also been a factor in human interactions for all of recorded history.
In a melting pot like the United States, people tend to self-segregate by race because it’s a very obvious indicator of who else is like you. The real basis for this is shared cultural experience. For instance, Indians in our community often seek the company of other Indians, and it’s no wonder since Indians in America typically share much more in common with one another than with non-Indians. This is the case for almost all races and ethnicities.
However, while friction between races has always existed, conflict and hostility have historically not been based on racial differences. Certainly, history has seen plenty of racial strife, but most major conflicts in history have been based on religious or ideological differences, or over good old-fashioned scarcity of resources. History is rife with countless examples of localized and enduring violence among people of the same race. That was the entire history of the Mongol Empire before the Chieftan Temujin united thirteen warring tribes all of the same race who had perpetually been fighting and killing one another. Temujin became Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Dynasty, which went on to fight and kill a lot of other people, also not on the basis of race.
The Evolution of American Racism
Despite the popular modern narrative, slavery was neither uniquely white, nor uniquely American. Almost every race in every significant civilization in the history of the world practiced slavery, and none of them cared too much about the race of the slave. The very word “slave” has Latin roots related to the Slavs of Eastern Europe who were captured by Germanic raiders and sold as slaves to the Arabic rulers of Spain as far back as the Eighth Century A.D.
This then is the legacy of humanity–constantly killing and enslaving one another. It really warms the heart.
Fast forward from the eighth century to the sixteenth century when slaves from Africa were sold to Portuguese merchants by slavers in West Africa. These black Africans were captured by other black Africans and sold to white Europeans. These slaves, taken first to Brazil, were the first in what would become a persistent and thriving transatlantic slave trade.
At the time, any consideration of the race of the buyers, the sellers, or the slaves, was secondary to the consideration of profit, long before Adam Smith penned The Wealth of Nations, a progenitor of capitalist philosophy. It turns out the profit motive is as old as humanity too, and so the slave trade prospered.
In time, however, the Enlightenment began to subvert all this. Slavery had been a well-established, profitable institution all over the globe for literally thousands of years, and then these upstart Enlightenment thinkers (white Europeans incidentally) started writing about Liberty and the Dignity of Mankind, and suchlike. They started to gain adherents, and to put pressure on governments to limit or abolish slavery.
This, in fact, was a central argument in the drafting of the Constitution of the United States. Abolitionists in the northern states wanted to abolish slavery while slaveholders in the southern states wanted to protect the institution and keep using slave labor. This impasse was what resulted in the infamous three-fifths compromise in the Constitution, but despite what you may hear in public schools or the mainstream media, the three-fifths compromise did not suggest that black people were only worth three-fifths of a person. Rather, it specified that for purposes of the census and Congressional apportionment, three-fifths of all slaves were counted in the census, while free people were counted fully, including free blacks, of which there were many in the north. It was the abolitionists who wanted slaves to not be counted at all, so as to deny the slaveholding southern states more seats in the new Congress since more northern Congressional seats meant a greater chance of abolishing slavery. Conversely, the slaveholding southerners wanted slaves to count as a full person (those racists!) so the south would hold more power in Congress to protect the institution of slavery.
The end result of three-fifths was nearly a precise measure of the balance of anti-slavery to pro-slavery sentiment at the time the Constitution was drafted in 1787. In time though, Enlightenment thinking advanced, and the abolitionist movement gained ground. Then England abolished slavery in 1833, seriously jeopardizing the institution in America.
Throughout this process, the philosophy behind slavery in America changed further. Where historically slavery was accepted as largely “just business,” now that the writing was on the wall, slaveholders, looking to protect the institution, increasingly rationalized the practice, and did so along racial lines since slaves in America were now almost universally black (a century or more prior, there were also white slaves in America, and it’s estimated that at the time the Constitution was drafted more than a million whites were enslaved by the Muslims of the Barbary Coast in Northern Africa).
Here we begin to see in earnest the notion that blacks were inferior to whites, and that slavery was good for them. You can see it reflected in the writing of the time by those who were pro-slavery. Basically, they thought of anything they could come up with to justify keeping slavery around. This is where our national consciousness said goodbye to any focus on slavery in favor of a focus on race.
In the end, of course, it came to war–The American Civil War to be precise. The end of that war, and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, formally abolished slavery in the United States (which, I note, was supported by 100 percent of the Republicans and 23 percent of the Democrats.)
Then came the Reconstruction, and all of the long-built sentiment of the inferiority of blacks was left to fester in the former slaveholding states, and racial friction would mount for nearly a century more in the era of Segregation before the culmination of the Civil Rights movement.
A hundred years is a long time to keep stewing on something, and it only makes matters worse. People have short memories, but the memory of societal sentiment runs deep. The Civil Rights movement was a movement–had to be a movement precisely because it ran so deep in the south. The deep-seated societal memory of every excuse concocted to protect slavery was what gave segregation such a strong foothold in the south, and why so much was required to overcome it.
Segregation was dismantled, and over the next half-century, racial barriers were torn down, and discrimination faded into the past. Obstacles based on race were replaced with obstacles based on socio-economic status, which can have a strong corollary, but we won’t stop talking about race, and defining one another by race, and judging based on race.
In our urge to right the injustices of the past, we are hyper-sensitive to race and increasingly seek to confer victim status. Race has become such an overt focus that it’s even changed the way we categorize race. Several years ago, Hispanics in America outnumbered African Americans for the first time. After that happened, suddenly questionnaires changed from a single “Race” question which included both African-American and Hispanic as options to two questions: “Race,” which included all the options as before, except Hispanic, and a new “Ethnicity” question, which only contains two options: Hispanic, or Non-Hispanic, as though the entire concept of ethnicity has only to do with whether one is Hispanic.
Our obsession with race only breeds more obsession, doing greater injustice to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
Reviving the Dream
Rev. King’s dream was noble, and it remains impossible so long as we regard race as a problem to be solved. Race isn’t our problem, our societal focus on race is our problem. The issue isn’t that we’re white or black or Non-Hispanic Pacific Islander. The issue is that we’re human. Ironically, we need to go back several hundred centuries to a time when we didn’t see race as our predominant defining characteristic, but we need to do so without the bloodshed and slavery.
Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a nation where we could be judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character. It’s very hard to lay down decades or centuries of cultural inclination, but while being human is our greatest curse, it’s also our greatest blessing because we have the gift of free will and willpower to look past all of it and simply make it happen, thereby making race cease to matter–through sheer will.
As I’ve said, 90 percent of our issues would evaporate if we treated one another as fellow children of God first, and everything else second. That goes for race, political affiliation, or school. Rev. King’s legacy is great. Making his dream an enduring reality would be so much greater.