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Monday, January 20, 2014

Recognizing Race on Martin Luther King Day

Over at Constitutional Law Prof Blog, Ruthann Robson has an interesting post about the way judges quote Martin Luther King, Jr.  The claim -- relying on a fascinating article by Jeremiah Goulka -- is that when judges quote MLK, they are usually doing so in the course of reaching a result that MLK would not support.

This discussion brought to mind a topic that I've discussed during my previous visit to Prawfs.  In my article Racial Capitalism, which came out last June, I defined racial capitalism as the process of deriving value from racial identity.  My article focused, in particular, on white people and predominantly white institutions deriving value from non-white racial identity.  An easy example is a school that photoshops a black student into its admissions brochure, or -- as a less extreme measure -- overrepresents the percentage of non-white students in its promotional materials.

In the article, I identify a judicial variant of racial capitalism, influenced by Justin Driver's work Recognizing Race.  (In Racial Capitalism, I discuss this on pages 2197-98.)  In a nutshell, Driver's work uncovers substantial variation in the circumstances when courts do and don't choose to explicitly identify the race of people discussed in their opinion.  In Ricci v. DeStefano, for example, the Supreme Court held that the New Haven fire department's decision to ignore standardized test results that disparately affected racial minorities violated Title VII.  Justice Kennedy's majority opinion discussed the testimony of three experts on standardized testing, yet only identified the race of one of the three -- the one whose testimony best supported the majority's result -- by stating that he "is black."  This is particularly striking because one of the other experts was also black, and yet the majority did not identify her by race.  As Professor Driver trenchantly explains:  "This identification is striking because, in a decision that cautions against the dangers of racially disparate treatment, it treats Lewis disparately by race."

Judges identify -- or ignore -- racial signifiers all the time, in ways that subtly buttress the result they reach.  In Whren v. United States, for example, the Court held stopping a motorist did not violate the Fourth Amendment so long as the officer had probable cause to believe that the the motorist violated traffic laws, even if an objectively reasonable officer would not have stopped the motorist in that situation.  The holding also meant that it didn't matter whether the traffic stop was pretextual so long as there was probable cause to believe that a traffic violation of some sort had occurred.  In the opinion, Justice Scalia identified the officer who arrested Whren as "Officer Ephraim Soto" and referred to him by name three times within the first two pages of the opinion.  While I have not been able to discover Officer Soto's racial or ethnic identity -- or, perhaps more importantly, how others would have perceived his race or ethinicity -- it appears relatively uncontroversial that Soto is a Spanish surname.  By emphasizing Officer Soto's surname, then, Justice Scalia implies that Soto might also be non-white, thereby distancing the events in Whren from the common pattern of white officers harassing black motorists that provoked outcry from civil rights advocates.

Of course, none of this is limited to judges.  More generally, it's quite common for white people and predominantly white institutions using the words of deceased black leaders to gain legitimacy and shield themselves against claims of racism.  Just today, Sarah Palin posted the following message on her Facebook page:

"Happy MLK, Jr. Day!

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mr. President, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. and all who commit to ending any racial divide, no more playing the race card."

Although of course I can't be sure, my guess is that MLK probably would not want his words used by Sarah Palin to chastise our nation's first black president for "playing the race card" (whatever Palin means by that).

Of course, Palin is far from alone.  Some conservatives have recently dubbed themselves "Frederick Douglass Republicans."  As one forthrightly explained, if you invoke the name of a well-respected black family member like Frederick Douglass, "you can trump the race card."

These various examples are unified by the theme of white people and institutions invoking race -- whether that of a famous black person such as MLK, or that of a participant in a legal drama -- as a way of achieving moral legitimacy and shielding whatever argument they happen to be making from charges of racism.  Whether this is effective is, of course, another story, although at least sometimes it appears to be.  (When I last checked, Palin's post had over 32,000 "likes.")  Whether sucessful or unsuccessful, however, this use of non-white identity by white people is worth evaluating critically.  As Goulka says in the conclusion to his piece, "on this MLK Day and every other day, whenever a court invokes Dr. King," -- and I think this extends to invoking non-white people more generally -- "make sure to judge it by the content of their characterization."

Posted by Nancy Leong on January 20, 2014 at 08:51 PM in Culture, Law and Politics | Permalink

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Comments

There's an important counterargument, though. MLK is universally admired in large part because he framed his most famous ideas in language with universal appeal. Given that, it seems problematic to suggest that it is improper to use MLK's language unless MLK the person would have agreed with the view being asserted by the speaker. Put another way, MLK's universal appeal and the fact that everyone quotes him for their views go together; you can't have one without the other.

As for use of the officer's name in Whren, it strikes me as quite common in Fourth Amendment traffic cases to use the full name of the officer who made the stop, and to mention the name multiple times in the course of explaining what happened. See, e.g. Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323 (2009) (Ginsburg, J.) (referring to the officer who led the stop as "Officer Maria Trevizo," and using the name "Trevizo" 37 times); Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249 (2007) (Souter, J.) (naming the officer who made the stop as "Deputy Sheriff Robert Brokenbrough," and referring to the name "Brokenbrough" 12 times). That makes sense, I think; purely from a narrative perspective, it is better writing to name the officer rather than just refer in the abstract to "an officer" in the course of describing the facts. Given that, I don't know if we can make a judgment about what Justice Scalia was trying to do by naming the officer in Whren and using his name three times in two pages. It's too common to draw a conclusion from it, I think.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jan 20, 2014 11:24:14 PM

I don't think the argument here is about propriety ("it seems problematic to suggest that it is improper to use MLK's language unless MLK the person would have agreed with the view being asserted by the speaker"); I think it is about intellectual dishonesty.

The move by Palin et al. is to take King's (admittedly vague/universal) words out of the context of his larger political and social agenda and suggest that those words support a very different political and social agenda. At the same time, Palin et al. seek to deflect any allegations that their agenda is racist because how could someone who quotes MLK be racist?

The way I see it, when you invoke King, you invoke his larger mission and worldview, and to suggest, as Palin does, that he would support suppressing candid discussions of race (because we live in a beautiful world of post-racial harmony) is dishonest and manipulative, in my opinion. The fact that everybody does it does not excuse it as a practice.

Posted by: Susannah Pollvogt | Jan 21, 2014 11:59:31 AM

Susannah, when you refer to "Palin et al", do you mean Palin, or do you mean et al? There are two uses of MLK that are being criticized. One is in a tweet by Sarah Palin. The other is the use of MLK in federal court opinions involving claims of racial discrimination -- albeit claims by those who are white. It seems to me that these are two different situations. I don't defend Palin's tweets: She's trolling, obviously. But I think the federal judges who quote MLK in cases involving racial discrimination genuinely see MLK as opposed to racial discrimination. To them, MLK stands for not discriminating on the basis of race. In your opinion, is that an intellectually dishonest view?

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jan 21, 2014 12:27:02 PM

You are right; it was a sloppy shorthand. Palin is a politician/celebrity and I agree her use of rhetoric is very different in context and content than that of a federal judge.

Speaking more precisely about the ways in which jurists might deploy King's words . . . obviously folks writing about the colorblindness/anti-classification v. anti-subordination arguments have covered a lot of this ground. I think that quoting King (or Justice Harlan's dissent in Plessy, for that matter) and suggesting that those words unproblematically vindicate colorblindness as not only the ultimate goal (the position taken By Justice O'Connor in Grutter--that ideally, race shouldn't "matter") but also the appropriate *methodology* for achieving racial justice is a shallow interpretation of his work and his words.

In other words, quoting King often seems to short-circuit debate about the means and ends of racial justice. It's a rhetorical mic drop, if you will. Why do we quote others rather than simply assert the proposition ourselves? Because somehow invoking the other creates greater authority. If King said it, it must be true, and must self-evidently serve the greater goals of racial justice (even if the statement is, as you point out, open to various interpretation).

Posted by: Susannah Pollvogt | Jan 21, 2014 12:47:20 PM

I guess I am echoing Orin, but -- although it is certainly true that, sometimes, King's (or others' -- Pope Francis comes to mind) words are invoked strategically or cynically -- I do not think we should say (and I don't mean to say that Nancy *is* saying) that all uses by white individuals (including judges) and institutions of King's words for causes that King might not himself have supported are cynical or strategic attempts to evade charges of racism. Those who invoke King's words for "conservative" or not-obviously-left-of-center causes and claims could sometimes think (a) King's words exemplify or communicate a principle or aspiration that, at a high level of generality, is true or compelling, even if, at the level of more particular application, the speaker cashes out it out in a way that the speaker realizes differs from how King might have cashed it out or (b) that the speaker's "conservative" application actually is how King would have cashed it out or (c) that reasonable people can disagree about how the general principle cashes out, but the principle is still worth highlighting and King spoke about the principle powerfully, etc., etc. For example -- at today's March for Life in Washington, I imagine that King will be invoked often (and, in my view, appropriately) in support of the anti-abortion position and -- even if we think that King was or would have been on the abortion-rights side of the debate -- I don't think this invocation constitutes an effort to exploit race or "racial capital" or to avoid charges of racism.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Jan 22, 2014 12:59:42 PM

@Rick - Your observations, and indeed this entire conversation, raise the question of what standard we are employing to attribute meaning to the any given person's decision to quote Dr. King. I am guilty of posting thoughts here that are pretty off-the-cuff, but maybe we can bring a little more rigor to the discussion.

There are a few different propositions we are addressing.

(1) That there are multiple ways to interpret and sincerely invoke Dr. King's words, even if he himself would not have agreed with the interpretation. I have no problem with this claim. I really do not know where Dr. King stood on the issue of abortion, but you could well be right that he would not favor appropriation of his words in a pro-life context. But that does not mean the appropriation is wrong, cynical, or an effort to evade charges of racism.

(2) That, all other things being equal (that is, there must be other commentators/philosophers/religious leaders who uttered words similar to Dr. King's that a person could choose to quote instead), there is a certain cache in choosing to quote King. You cannot separate King's words from his identity as a champion of civil rights, and so anyone who quotes him approvingly is, in some way or another, "cashing in" on that identity. There can be a lot of variation here, and it is not always a cynical move. But it always means *something*.

(3) That there is something suspect when, per the original post linked to by Nancy, a jurist quotes King's "content of their character" language to support the proposition that "The color of a person's skin or his or her ethnic identity is the least meaningful way in which to understand that person." And then this contention is in turn used to support an outcome that strikes down efforts to remedy past racial discrimination. There are two problems with this move. The first is the claim that King's words unproblematically support the idea that race identity doesn't matter. Of course it matters, in myriad ways, both obvious and nuanced, and always dependent on context. The second problem is that the jurist in this instance is quoting Dr. King's words as if they stand as logical or moral authority in support of an outcome that we can guess Dr. King would not favor. There is an important difference, I think, between saying "This is what Dr. King's words mean to me" and implying that his words support an outcome anathema to his vision.

Posted by: Susannah Pollvogt | Jan 22, 2014 1:37:32 PM

I think Thomas J. Sugrue at Jacobin got it right: “Every year, in January and April, we commemorate the extraordinary career of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. But there is probably no figure in recent American history whose memory is more distorted, whose message more bowdlerized, whose powerful words are more drained of content than King.”

Sugrue cites Thomas F. Jackson’s 2006 book, From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice, for the substance of his argument:

“...[A]s as Jackson shows, King was anything but a milquetoast racial liberal or a radical-come-lately. Through a close reading of King’s work, Jackson finds deep currents of anti-imperialism running through King’s thought, going all the way back to his days as a student. He finds a consistent thread of anti-capitalism in King’s speeches. And he finds that King was building alliances with the left-wing of the labor movement and allying himself with activists who called for structural change in the economy. King, in other words, was a radical well before he offered his prophetic denunciation of the Vietnam War in 1967 or joined the Memphis sanitation workers on strike in 1968.

King’s radicalism is lost to the obfuscating fog of memory. In American culture today, we have several Martin Luther King, Jrs: the Commemorative King, the Therapeutic King, the Conservative King, and the Commodified King. Each of these Kings competes for our attention, but each of them represents a vision of King that he himself would not have recognized.”

Sugrue proceeds to provide exemplary instances of each of these distorted portraits of the man's beliefs and vision, in short, leaving us with an alternative sketch of the contours of King’s worldview that places a premium on truth. Tim Lacy of the U.S. Intellectual History blog recommends King’s 1967 speech at the Riverside Church in New York, “Beyond Vietnam” for a taste of King’s worldview that goes beyond the routine (hence predictable) ideological pablum of popular mass media and cultural narratives (both implicit and explicit, intentional or not). In other words, we sample the substance of a worldview that was genuinely radical in the best sense of that term (I suppose in the prevailing cultural climate the meaning of that phrase will only be properly understood by those of Leftist pedigree), one that speaks to questions of labor, poverty, and economic justice, one that understood the anti-imperialist struggles for liberation and self-determination in the so-called Third World, one that linked the logic of the opposition to the Vietnam War with an appreciation, understanding, and support of similar such struggles:

“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality [applause], and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing ‘clergy and laymen concerned’ committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa [I cite King’s early support (1962) for economic sanctions against South Africa at a recent post at Religious Left Law]. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. [sustained applause] So such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.

In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which has now justified the presence of U.S. military advisors in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counterrevolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Cambodia and why American napalm and Green Beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru.”

Sans the reference to “our calling as sons of the living God,” one might have thought these were lines from a speech by Noam Chomsky.

It is (the Gandhian-like) King who reminds us that “[w]hen machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” It is King who spoke on behalf of a “revolution of values” that transcends the worldviews of both contemporary conservatives and liberals, a revolution that demanded a radical socio-economic and political praxis. It is King who proclaimed in a voice of righteous indignation that

“It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has a revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.” [I happen to believe that today it is in fact the case that “only Marxism has a revolutionary spirit,” a humanistic Marxism that fully embraces the virtues and necessity of democratic theory and praxis.]

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jan 23, 2014 8:24:09 AM

1. There is a difference between (a) what we know Dr King said, and (b) what someone speculates he might have thought about something 50 years later. We know (a) for certain but neither you, nor I, nor anyone else can know (b).

2. Regarding the Palin quote, which I had not seen before, are you saying that she does not actually agree with the sentiment expressed by Dr King or are you saying that Dr King did not actually mean it when he said it?

Posted by: MS | Jan 23, 2014 10:09:36 AM

I'm particularly sorry to return so late to an interesting thread with thoughtful comments. I lost my laptop power cord while traveling and it was remarkably disabling (possible fodder for future blog post about overreliance on technology).

Since time has elapsed I won't attempt to respond to every point raised here, but here are a few thoughts:

@Orin, I agree that it's not uncommon for judges/justices to use officers' names. I think what is more illuminating here is that most of the time *Justice Scalia* doesn't use officers' names. Going back ten years or so and looking at criminal procedure opinions Scalia has authored, there's no mention of any officer by name in US v. Jones, Ashcroft v. Al-Kidd, Kansas v. Ventris, Virgina v. Moore, Montejo v. Louisiana, Hudson v. Michigan, and US v. Grubbs. There are certainly exceptions (e.g. Florida v. Jardines).

My claim isn't that Scalia is blatantly leveraging race whenever possible by naming every officer with a racially-correlated name. The point is more nuanced: that choosing to identify an officer by an racially-correlated name is a way of deriving subtle value by sending signals, and that (as Driver suggests in the article I mention) the judiciary should be intentional about using racial signifiers (or not) in their opinions.

[cont.]

Posted by: Nancy Leong | Jan 24, 2014 9:32:31 AM

@Rick and @Susannah: I really appreciated your exchange. My thinking tends to map onto what I read Susannah to be saying: that there is a difference between saying, "this is a plausible reading of King's words" versus cherry-picking King's words to advance an outcome that King would almost certainly reject. I read the "I Have a Dream Speech" as quite radical: it includes statements like:

"1963 is not an end but a beginning. Those who hoped that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges."

This kind of language indicates that MLK was about substantive outcomes. Not formal equality. And I don't think we are anywhere near the "bright day of justice." Pervasive racial inequality in America persists today -- look at stats on incarceration, police brutality, employment discrimination, and implicit bias just for starters -- and I have difficulty believing that MLK would support the use of his words to perpetuate that inequality. I think a lot of people (no one on this blog, obviously) haven't actually read the "I Have a Dream" speech and other MLK speeches, and I think people should do so before they start using MLK's words to support outcomes that directly contradict the social justice agenda that he has explicitly described.

I think this ties nicely into Patrick's point about the overlooked breadth of MLK's agenda and his radicalism, which Patrick explains better than I could.

@MS, thank you for your comment. I agree there is danger in engaging in mind-reading with respect to MLK. I do think that when uses MLK's words to support a result that directly contradicts something he has said, we can (sometimes) make a very good guess about (b). As far as the second part of your comment, I think we would have to have consensus about what MLK's sentiment was as a prerequisite to answer those questions, and I don't think we do. But I doubt very much that his sentiment was "the first black president should stop playing the race card."

Posted by: Nancy Leong | Jan 24, 2014 9:57:34 AM

Nancy - Thanks for your response. I wanted to be clearer at what I was trying to get at with my question about the Palin quote. I wasn't really focused on her ill-advised behavioral recommendation to the President as much as the actual quote she uses from Dr King. It goes to what Orin pointed out regarding his use of sentiments with universal appeal that continue to contribute to his popularity today. I was a teenager when he spoke those words and they had that impact on me.

While I think the argument "here are some words King spoke and therefore he would agree with me on X today" is wrong, regardless of the position or the issue, I don't have a problem with using those statements like that quoted by Palin to say "here are some words King spoke and that is a sentiment I agree with and helps support what I believe today". The words Palin quoted are words I believed in then and now. Where the debate comes in is where as a society we are today on that spectrum on which there are a variety of opinions and I'm not particularly concerned with, or persuaded by,speculation by anyone on what Dr King would have thought today.

Let me give you an example. I consider John Lewis to be a great American story and admire what he overcame as a youth and the moral and physical courage he demonstrated in the 1950s and 60s. However, I agree with on almost nothing with John Lewis, today's politician. The fact that he, or anyone else, would not reach the same conclusions today as I would based on their words from 50 years ago would not dissuade me from using those words if they expressed something in a compelling way that I believed in.

On the other hand, I may be falling victim to the logical fallacy identified by the noted philosopher Joe Walsh, when he sang "Everybody's so different, I haven't changed"!

Posted by: MS | Jan 24, 2014 11:56:08 AM

Nancy, it seems to me that the relevant category is traffic stop cases, not criminal procedure cases. Most traffic stops are conducted by one officer, or perhaps two; it's common in those cases to mention the officer's name. Other cases are different. For example, if officers are executing a warrant, it would be very rare for the case to mention names in the context of a motion to suppress. Most warrants are executed by a team of officers, with different officers playing different roles, and it would be confusing to mention names. Given that, I don't think looking at Scalia criminal procedure cases -- rather than traffic stop cases -- generally tells us anything.

More broadly, it seems hard to make a claim like this when we don't even know the officer's race. It means that we not only have to speculate out the base rate at which a name would be mentioned, but we also have to speculate about the officer's real or perceived race, all in order to build a case for speculation about what a particular person was thinking. And to make matters more complicated, the decision of whether to mention the officer's name is something that would often be a decision by a law clerk rather than a Justice, so we may only be speculating about what the Scalia clerk who drafted the opinion was thinking.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jan 25, 2014 1:54:26 PM

A little research into Whren and Officer Soto reveals some very intriguing details. Nancy, I'd be curious about what you think of what I found.

If you look at the briefs filed in the Whren case, Whren's defense merits brief mentioned officer Soto 29 times, introducing him by the full name "Efrain Soto ,Jr." I checked, and the lower court opinion and the amcius briefs also used the name "Efrain Soto." Other federal court opinions have referred to the same MPD officer as "Efrain Soto." Notably, the first name "Efrain" is a Spanish version of the name "Ephraim."

In Justice Scalia's opinion, however, Justice Scalia replaces the spanish "Efrain" with the Hebrew biblical name "Ephraim," referring to Soto as "Ephraim Soto." So instead of trying to introduce Soto's race, Justice Scalia appears to be trying to hide Soto's race: Scalia denies Soto his race by replacing his Spanish name with its non-Spanish biblical root.

Instead of "distancing the events in Whren from the common pattern of white officers harassing black motorists that provoked outcry from civil rights advocates," as you suggest, Justice Scalia appears to be doing the opposite: He whitens Officer Soto by denying him his Spanish heritage and misrepresenting him as someone of indeterminate race.

Assuming that this was an intentional choice, I'm curious how Justice Scalia's apparent "whitening" of Officer Soto fits your theory.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jan 25, 2014 2:18:36 PM

By today's standards, as well as the standards of the 1960s, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson were white supremacists. The egalitarian sentiments words they uttered/wrote in the Gettysburg Address and Declaration of Independence are inconsistent with their more thorough reflections on race in America.

Was King wrong to invoke their words when fighting against white supremacy in the South?

I agree that Martin Luther King would not support the views of "color blind conservatives." Towards the end of his life he embraced affirmative action, reparations for slavery, and considered himself a democratic socialist. However, before King's legacy became cemented as a great American hero alongside Washington and Lincoln, many of his supporters whitewashed those views. Had King been celebrated as someone who supported race conscious policies and other left wing positions, there is no way his birthday would be celebrated as a national holiday. Those who focused their opposition on his holiday by pointing out his left wing associations (i.e. Jesse Helms) were called racists for this move.

For better or worse, King's legacy is now more universal than what he actually believed. It seems like a bait and switch to criticize conservatives for celebrating the colorblind legacy of King that liberals helped create. (Admittedly, the people making the argument now are not the same liberals who created his legacy.)

Posted by: Mike | Jan 25, 2014 7:33:59 PM

By today's standards, as well as the standards of the 1960s, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson were white supremacists. The egalitarian sentiments words they uttered/wrote in the Gettysburg Address and Declaration of Independence are inconsistent with their more thorough reflections on race in America.

Was King wrong to invoke their words when fighting against white supremacy in the South?

I agree that Martin Luther King would not support the views of "color blind conservatives." Towards the end of his life he embraced affirmative action, reparations for slavery, and considered himself a democratic socialist. However, before King's legacy became cemented as a great American hero alongside Washington and Lincoln, many of his supporters whitewashed those views. Had King been celebrated as someone who supported race conscious policies and other left wing positions, there is no way his birthday would be celebrated as a national holiday. Those who focused their opposition on his holiday by pointing out his left wing associations (i.e. Jesse Helms) were called racists for this move.

For better or worse, King's legacy is now more universal than what he actually believed. It seems like a bait and switch to criticize conservatives for celebrating the colorblind legacy of King that liberals helped create. (Admittedly, the people making the argument now are not the same liberals who created his legacy.)

Posted by: Mike | Jan 25, 2014 7:33:59 PM

MS @Jan 24, 2014 11:56:08 AM:

‘Tis a shame that you “don’t have a problem with using those statements like that quoted by Palin to say ‘here are some words King spoke and that is a sentiment I agree with and helps support what I believe today.’” Why? Because ripping quotes out of their linguistic context in the manner Palin and others on the Right have done often if not invariably involves distorting when not destroying the fairly clear meaning of what King himself meant when he wrote or spoke those words, so the “sentiment you agree with” is merely a redundant agreement with yourself and thus not King, and tends toward, if it is not an expression of, solipsistic semanticism. It is a stunningly bold and crass example of succumbing to the ideological appropriation of the moral and political authority of King as a species of Right-wing propaganda, where propaganda is defined as “the organized attempt through communication to affect belief or action or inculcate attitudes in large audiences in ways that circumvent or suppress an individual’s adequately informed, rational and reflective judgment,” the latter triune powers of critical thinking and analysis bypassed altogether in according a meaning to King’s words utterly foreign and antagonistic to their original, linguistic and political contextual meaning. You are perfectly free to believe in the sentiment expressed in the non-contextual sentential meaning of the words as you understand them, but those are no longer “the words” of Dr. King. You may “believe[]…then and now” in the “words Palin quoted,” but your belief has nothing whatsoever to do with Dr. King’s words but Palin’s words, Palin’s meaning…and her beliefs, so it would be politically perspicuous and honest if you merely affirmed your agreement with Palin’s political beliefs, beliefs deeply at odds with those patent in the coherent moral and political worldview of Dr. King, a worldview we can safely characterize in general terms as “spiritually Leftist.”

At the same time you assert that “[w]here the debate comes in is where as a society we are today on that spectrum on which there are a variety of opinions and I’m not particularly concerned with, or persuaded by, speculation by anyone on what Dr King would have thought today.” That’s rather disingenuous, is it not? After all, Palin’s words are taken from King and insinuate his endorsement of opinions and beliefs she holds today, and you yourself claim these words from her are “words I believed in then and now.” In short, you believed then and continue to believe today in the peculiar meaning of words first uttered by Dr. King, but not the beliefs incarnate in those words as understood by King, but beliefs you apparently share in common with Palin, words with no bearing on what Dr. King might have said or thought were he alive today, this despite the fact that the questions and concerns, the target of his words if you will, remain relevant if not urgent because they speak to the socio-cultural illness and myriad injustices in this society with direct causal connection to the sicknesses and injustices of yesteryear, despite some tangible and meaningful progress on civil rights (progress made fragile by the recent legal and political threats to voting rights under the guise of putative concern with electoral fraud). In other words, to the extent such sickness and injustices remain with us, there is little by way of indulgence in “speculation” or shaky inference-making when it comes to making statements with regard to what King might have said today were he still among us (this allows for novel viral strains and variations on the theme of injustice).

Mike @ Jan 25, 2014 7:33:59 PM

You’re too clever by half: If it is true that “King’s legacy is now more universal than what he actually believed,” that is a specious universality, one now rendered bland and innocuous, empty of the moral and political sting that defined his life and work. In other words, the universality here is hardly a virtue, emblematic instead of the moral and political vice common to the “commodified” and “commemorative” King in Sugrue’s piece from which I quoted above. “Liberals” did not “create the colorblind legacy of King” (although I’ll concede some of that bunch intentionally and otherwise had a hand in it). That was the cumulative result of conservatives making fallacious appeals to King’s (moral and political) authority and a mass media playing its mind-numbing supporting part in the propagation and entrenchment of “bread and circuses” by squishing that legacy into a tasteless ideological pablum fit for insipid mass consumption.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jan 26, 2014 8:39:46 AM

@ Patrick S. O'Donnell
Here's a less clever argument. Imagine that Rand Paul or Ted Cruz said something like this on Martin Luther King Day. "I respect Martin Luther King for his opposition to segregation. However, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, he argued for positions--such as proportional hiring and reparations for slavery--that I believe were a misguided remedy to the past wrongs. Furthermore, his association with communists, his self-described socialist position on economic issues, along with his comparison of American Soldiers in Vietnam to Nazi Germany makes me view his legacy as mixed. Thus, while I can celebrate King's brave stance against segregation, I have difficulty celebrating his full legacy this Martin Luther King Day."

I thin most liberals will acknowledge that opposing King on these policy positions is not inherently racist. Yet, I am positive that such a speech (which would never happen)would be greeted from righteous indignation and demands for apologies from all corners of respectable opinion in this country.

So would you accept this trade: Conservatives stop pretending that King agreed with them, but liberals will not get morally outraged if Conservatives criticize King?

I also do not agree that conservatives created this image of King. As I'm sure you know, Conservatives were critcial of King during his lifetime and many prominent conservatives continued to criticize him when the time of the King Holiday came up. I used to be friends with a number of former staffers of John East and Jesse Helms who led the opposition to the Holiday. When they argued that to make King's birthday a Holiday would celebrate King's leftism, they were accused of racism and worse by the likes of Teddy Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moyniham. Ronald Reagan himself acknowledged King's leftism, but said that to the Holiday's supporters "the perception of too many people is based on an image, not reality. Indeed to them, the perception is reality." http://www.nytimes.com/1983/10/22/us/reagan-s-doubts-on-dr-king-disclosed.html It was only after Reagan relented to this "perception" that conservatives really began to celebrate King.

And you did not address my question about Jefferson and Lincoln? Was King wrong to invoke the words of the Declaration and Gettysburg address when both their authors believed that blacks and whites could not live as social equals? How is this any different than conservatives taking King's colorblind statements out of context?

Posted by: Mike | Jan 26, 2014 3:17:03 PM

Mike, I spoke to what originally interested and provoked me and I don't feel under any obligation to speak to nor am I interested in addressing anything else you might have to say on this or other topics, whatever its value. Perhaps others can engage with you at this point.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jan 26, 2014 6:00:28 PM

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