Sunday, January 15, 2023

The Wokest of Us All

Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King, Jr., LaVerne Watson, and David W. Bridell on Boston Common, ca, 1955, via Boston University

Hi, here with a couple of slightly novel ideas for my annual post on the content of your character and the annual Republican explosion of enthusiasm for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as an opponent of anybody ever referring at any time to anybody's race, especially when the subject is college admissions.

First, just to note that the argument is a fine example of what I have called the "Scalian Hermeneutic", the philosophical technique of totally divorcing a linguistic expression from its context before you attempt to analyze it, named after Justice Antonin Scalia's interpretation in Heller of 52% of the Second Amendment as if the other 48%, not to mention an entire history of the right to bear arms going back to the Glorious Revolution in England 1689 and a Bill of Rights that granted gun rights only to members of the established church, did not exist. 

The advocates of Conservative King, similarly, base their case on 2%, 35 words from the 1,667 words of King's fervent appeal of August 28, 1963, for racial justice and equality, a speech that frequently mentions people's races, as right at the opening,

One hundred years [after Emancipation], the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.

(altogether using "Negro" 16 times, "black" 4 times, and "white" 7 times including: "The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.")

The other thing is something I don't think is normally noted, the way Dr. King refers to one specific group of children, his own, as opposed to some rando collection of kids like the five in the illustration above. 

He refers to his own kids for a specific reason, because, as everyone in his audience understood, all of his kids were Black, which meant they would be facing racial discrimination, would be judged by the color of their skin within the wider community, while most other kids were not. White children in North American have never had to worry about they would be "judged by the content of their character", for the past four centuries, and Black children always have.

You cannot cure racial oppression, he is saying, by ignoring race; you must confront it head on.

Incidentally King's mentor in graduate school at Boston University, Howard Thurman, Dean of Marsh Chapel from 1953 and the first Black man to serve as a dean in a largely white institution, the central influence in King's adoption of nonviolence, was almost certainly what we might now call a diversity hire, and a good thing it was they hired him.

Anyway, Dr. King's dream wasn't that color would disappear but that white people in particular would stop treating Black people as inferiors. You can't say that without referring to race, and you can't do anything about it without referring to race either, even if you merely point at it, like the 14th Amendment or the Civil Rights Act, without using the word. King's use of his children in the 1963 speech was an example of the pointing technique. He wouldn't have been interested in whether white kids' SAT scores didn't always get them into Harvard at the same rate as Black kids' scores (and SAT scores aren't the "content of your character" in any case). He wasn't interested in "color blindness", he was committed to social justice for Black people (and other overlapping groups, of which poor people were the most important in his last years). He was the wokest of us all.

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