Our Affirmative Action Policies Have Strayed From Martin Luther King's Message


Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day to reflect on the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the figurehead of the Civil Rights movement.

There is much debate over the true message Dr. King sought to bring to the American people, with both liberals and conservatives trying to claim King (who never identified with a specific political party) as their own.

King's niece, Alveda King, is a prominent figure at Tea Party and other conservative rallies. She would say that King's teachings of self-reliance, and absolute morals inspired by a higher power, firmly would place King in the conservative camp, as opposed to the liberal camp with their "moral relativism."

Others (notably Ronald Reagan as he voiced his opposition to affirmative action) cite King's own words during his "I Have A Dream" speech, referring to King's call to judge people not by "the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." Many on the right use those words to justify their opposition to not only Affirmative Action, but reverse discrimination in all forms.

Historians however, disagree, albeit only slightly.

We all talk about King's legacy in terms of the black Civil Rights movement in the segregated South. However, as his activism expanded northwards, his positions evolved. While blacks in the South didn't have the option of voting for politicians who chronically oppressed them, the same was not true in the North, where black communities still lived in poverty. In the North, the situation was wholly socially based, rather than political, as it was in the South with a government actively working against African Americans. 

King, towards the end of his life, actually did advocate for wealth redistribution and affirmative action. By the time King had begun his work in Chicago and New York, his view had shifted away from racism and instead onto war and poverty, believing these to be just as responsible for the problems facing America those days. By 1968, King was preparing to lead a "Poor People's Campaign," which was inclusive of all races, not just Blacks.

King likened Affirmative Action ideas to the special treatment given to soldiers returning from WWII. He felt that our country had a responsibility to help these people.

However, King also would not have advocated for the kind of reverse discrimination we see today. While he had said, "A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro," in his book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community, he also came from a period in time where the vast majority of blacks in this country were still downtrodden and poor.

In today's modern society, where the sole issue of being black is no longer a barrier to success (when it is a barrier, it is the exception, not the rule), Dr. King would have advocated a change in how we deal with our balance of racial vs. economic policies.

We live now in a world where there are a number of black-only, Latino-only, women-only scholarships available for college. Likewise, our schools and businesses set quotas on minimum number of minority students they will accept. Many universities adopt the practice of "when all else is equal, minority status is the tie breaker," which equates to the notion that even when two people are identically competent and skilled, the minority kid is always a little bit better, solely because he/she is a minority.

While some might applaud these measures as necessary steps to assuring "diversity," King would not have welcomed the notion that people have added intrinsic value solely because of their skin color or gender. He would however, have welcomed the policy of affirmative action (in today's context, that is) had it been not based on race or minority status, but on socio-economic status.

Martin Luther King, Jr., if he were alive today and given the opportunity to rewrite our affirmative action and social justice policies, would have championed all of the poor, equally. He would not have seen a difference between a poor white kid, and a poor black kid, with the same low economic status, from the same rough inner-city neighborhood. Nor would he have supported a law that gives preference to wealthy black students from the suburbs over a poorer white students from the inner city.

So to classify him as liberal or conservative is difficult, as he seemed to tread the line issue to issue. King was a pro-union, Pro-wealth distribution, but also a deeply religious man who felt that there was an absolute moral authority, and that this country had a moral imperative to follow it. He likely would have felt liberal policies on wealth distribution were more aligned (or at least he would have given them priority) with his Christian views than Conservative stances on gay marriage, not unlike many Black preachers today, who are firmly in support of the Democratic party, despite taking conservative social stances (like Prop 8 in California, which was supported greatly by the religious but otherwise liberal black and Hispanic voting groups). 

King wasn't just a voice for black America, he was a voice for all of America. Not just those whose minority status has directly given them difficulty in succeeding, but anyone who has fallen on hard times, or been the first in their family to go to college, or anyone that believes that the poor in this country need to be, and can be, brought up into the middle class and beyond with a combination of good old-fashioned hard work, which King espoused his whole life, and a helping hand from the community.