What would Martin Luther King Jr. think about critical race theory?
As an educated man, he might be offended by the latest woke gambit of challenging unbelievers to word games, tricking them into not being able to “define” CRT so they can’t oppose it. The con is, the definitions that believers themselves use are squirmy. The simplest is: Everything good that happened to white Americans and everything bad that happened to black Americans from 1619 up to this moment is because of slavery.
No matter which definition you write on the golden tablets, the result is people demanding more black sitcom characters with the same zeal as they demand Thomas Jefferson’s name be stripped off high schools, and believing both things accomplish something. But 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 CRT avoid the practical questions that recognition might invite. It’s about empty faith, belief without the possibility of proof. Like any zealot, they simply know it is true—sometimes 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 black Americans, 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 the “systemic racism” team means the willful ruling out of bounds any discussions that could lead to unwelcome conclusions. So, you must ignore cases of black Americans doing well, and ignore cases of white Americans doing poorly. You must also dump people as diverse as Hasidic Jews, 19th century illiterate Irish immigrants, and Louis C.K. into a category called “white.”
As a “systemic racism” supporter you must not question why racist whites have “allowed” Asians, Hispanics, Persian real estate agents, and 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.
Belief in America’s unique racism also requires not asking a lot of questions about how, of the 12 million abducted into slavery out of Africa, only about 388,000 people were brought to the U.S. You cannot talk about slavery as a part of economies across the globe and over millennia. You cannot wonder why BLM isn’t focused on the Dutch, the Arabs, or the British, who helped create the slave trade infrastructure. Belief in systemic racism demands you see slavery, which existed globally and in North America before there was a USA, as a distinctly American thing.
You have to believe there exists a mass movement devoted to not teaching 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. You must be comfortable ignoring the Thomas Jefferson of the Declaration of Independence as just 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) 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.
Critical race theory adherents must deny the economic progress made by black Americans after the Second World War, 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 black citizens, even better than many white Americans. (The median income for American households of Nigerian ancestry is $68k, compared with $61k for U.S. households overall.)
Fixing systemic racism somehow 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 by cops. Nothing please about individual responsibility, or single parent families and runaway dads, or fetal alcohol syndrome and teenage moms, or the scourge of inner city gangs and drug use. Nope, those things are caused by systemic racism, we must believe, so they’re not any individual’s fault or responsibility.
We must dismiss the lack of action on this supposed systemic racism by a two-term black president with two black attorneys general, and later by a black vice president, because somehow that was not their job or their responsibility—never mind the fact that they were the system in systemic, literally running the government.
We might remember Obama’s Department of Justice described failures throughout the Chicago Police Department, the city then run by Obama stooge Rahm Emanuel, saying excessive force was chiefly aimed at black people. 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 that 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. He also believed in the responsibility to act, and indeed found the soul of his movement in it. “If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us,” he once said, “the opposition 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 propriety of a Caucasian even writing critically about Martin Luther King. So let’s try it this way: What will happen when those who still understand King (never mind the oh-so-earnest undergrads with purple hair and lily-white skin) realize his successors, the critical race theorists, have built their message on a foundation of untruths, hate, hypocrisy, violence, and plain carny talk?
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.