Dr. Martin Luther King was a polarizing figure who brought out the best and worst in America. Eventually, the better angels of our nature prevailed and monumental legal progress was made through historic legislation.
Socially, we are a far more integrated society than we were in the 1960s. Racism remains across the racial spectrum, but behavior has improved and the success of minorities in professions, academia and politics has been substantial.
Politically, the wave of change was fleeting and may have provoked a reactionary movement. The leftward lurch of LBJ, as well as the opposition to the Vietnam War, drove Americans into the clutches of Richard M. Nixon just three years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Watergate helped President Jimmy Carter serve for four years. Carter made Andrew Young the first African-American Ambassador to the United Nations, but he also supported neo-liberal economic policies.
The success of President Reagan catalyzed more than a decade of dominance by the Republican party, more than three decades of neo-liberal economic policies and a reversal on civil rights. In fact, successful Republican presidential campaigns have ridden a fear of black and brown people into the White House. These campaigns utilized racial wedge issues to let whites know they would be prioritized.
Ronald Reagan utilized a site where civil rights workers were violently murdered to launch his campaign championing states rights and opposing affirmative action. George H.W. Bush used Willie Horton and his son used the rumor John McCain had a black child to win in South Carolina. Donald Trump claimed Mexico was sending immigrants with, “problems. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
Dr. King was a spellbinding orator and natural leader. He opposed the Vietnam War, cared deeply about poverty and based his campaign for racial equality on Christian principles, the U.S.’s founding ideals and basic human fairness. Among his utterances, one phrase that may have resonated the most with Americans was the hope that people be judged not “by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.”
It was an idea that made eminent sense yet was rejected by the right. King was excoriated as a socialist and communist. The same language was used against Southern Democrats by Republicans, even those who voted against the civil rights legislation. Much like today, politics was more powerful than facts.
In recent years the agenda of the left has been driven by gender and race. This focus on the characteristics people are born with has deemphasized the issues candidates have worked on, positions they support and actions they have opposed. This de-prioritization of issues has included a neglect of the policies candidates have supported that benefit women and minorities.
Much of the media, and particularly liberal outlets, bemoaned the loss of Senators Harris and Booker from the Presidential race. Most of the discussions did not concentrate on the issues they supported or opposed, but focused on the color of their skin.
Senator Kamala Harris supporter, Christine Pelosi, said, “how you treat her demise will be a sign to other black women about how you value them.” When Harris left the race, Jasmine Wright wrote on CNN.com, “Her exit pulled the rug out from underneath thousands of black girls and women.” One could argue it should be more important how her policies would impact black women and girls, rather than the race or gender of Harris. That is if the content of her character was more important than the color of her skin.
Of Senator Booker’s departure, the L.A. Times wrote, “The exit from the race by yet another prominent black lawmaker leaves a field of presidential candidates increasingly white and old.” The Times explained, “That reality has sparked discomfort and soul-searching among party activists. Three out of four of the top-tier candidates dominating the race are now whites.”
The left and progressives are the true custodians of Dr. King’s legacy and heirs to his dream. Yet liberal’s devotion to identity politics has twisted and contorted the dream of Dr. King. Increasingly, candidates are valued more for their racial or gender category and less on the issues for which they fight.
Limited column inches have always been vulnerable to shorthand explanations, but there is more at work. The left’s desire to compensate for decades of poor treatment for women and minorities is a worthy goal; but at what cost? For some on the left no cost is too high – winning is the secondary goal in any campaign. The primary goal is recompense and enlarging the movement.
If deemphasizing victory is the impact of prioritizing redress, the cost of neglecting victory becomes critical. Are the victories of Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis and Brian Kemp worth the defeats of Hillary Clinton, Andrew Gillum and Stacy Abrams? Will similar defeats in the future be worth it?
Dr. King said, “I have a dream that is deeply rooted in the American dream – one day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed – ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” For a long time in America this goal was far from being realized.
Today the Democratic Party’s distortion of Dr. King’s dream and the adoption of identity politics, means some folks are viewed as more equal than others. The cost of these contortions are victories for some reprehensible politicians and the diminution of the dream.