Dr. King's Dream of Affirmative Action
33 Pages Posted: 8 Aug 2017 Last revised: 24 Jul 2020
Date Written: August 7, 2017
President Trump and Attorney General Sessions have decided to challenge affirmative action policies in higher education as a form of discrimination against white people. We should expect them to soon be citing Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech as evidence that Dr. King would be supporting their position if he were still alive. We should also expect them to propose that class-based affirmative action replace race-based affirmative action, and again cite Dr. King, as a supporter of remedies for poverty, regardless of race. Indeed, the contemporary debate about affirmative action increasingly pits those who support race-based affirmative action against those calling for class-based affirmative action, which is frequently described as a “color-blind” alternative. And in support of this alternative to race-conscious affirmative action, its proponents often invoke Dr. King as a supporter of color-blind affirmative action.
The truth is more complicated, and infinitely more interesting and instructive. While Dr. King dreamed of a time when racism – and thus race – would be irrelevant, he was an active supporter of both kinds of affirmative action – race-based and class-based. As a supporter of race-conscious affirmative action, he spent much of the last six years of his life actively promoting it, including the use of racial quotas in employment. Specifically, from 1962-68 Dr. King orchestrated and implemented “Operation Breadbasket,” a civil rights boycott campaign that demanded racial quotas through the employment of Black American workers in proportion to their number in a workforce, neighborhood or city. With regard to class-based affirmative action Dr. King supported a massive war on poverty. In advocating for special benefits for poor Americans he sometimes used color-blind language and pointed out that it would benefit poor whites as well as poor Blacks, while at other times he justified it as an example of the kind of reparations to which Black Americans were entitled under the equitable remedy of restitution for unpaid wages. To those who invoke Dr. King as a supporter of color-blindness and an opponent of race-conscious affirmative action, and to those who advocate race-conscious affirmative action over class-based affirmative action, nearly fifty years after his murder Dr. King’s voice continues to send us an important message: we don’t need to choose one approach over the other; we can and should do both.
Keywords: Affirmative Action, Martin Luther King, Jr., Higher Education, Discrimination, Civil Rights History, Civil Rights
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