King’s vision of a colorblind America was about a future utopia. However, conservatives now think King’s civil rights movement was an unmitigated success, that the nation is truly colorblind.
Andrew Hartman teaches history at Illinois State University. He is the author of A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars
(The Society for US Intellectual History (SUSIH)) ― King’s vision of a colorblind America was about a future utopia. However, conservatives now think King’s civil rights movement was an unmitigated success, that the nation is truly colorblind. That the president (whom they hate) is black is proof of such progress. Conservative colorblindness, then, ignores the ways in which race continues to handicap a person’s chances of success. As of now, black Americans are eight times more likely than white Americans to experience chronic poverty. The schools many black Americans attend are acutely underfunded. And black men are eight times more likely than white men to spend time in prison, a discrepancy one scholar calls “the new Jim Crow.” The “color line,” a phrase coined by Frederick Douglass in 1881 to describe the emergence of Jim Crow, unfortunately continues to be a useful metaphor for American racial exclusion. Race continues to be a festering wound on the nation.
Up through the mid-1960s, liberals were the ones who supported a colorblind approach to equal opportunity. But when racial inequality proved obstinate, liberals adjusted their notions about how best to obtain equality. Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, most American companies continued their usual practice of exclusively employing whites, since, ironically, contravening the colorblind principle of “merit” was a technical violation of the Act’s provision against preferential treatment. In the face of this, many liberals tentatively embraced “affirmative action.” Some even embraced Black Power-infused arguments about institutional racism, arguments about how standards such as “merit” were embedded in the history of a nation that had only 100 years ago enslaved black people and, as such, were anything but colorblind. This new liberal vision favored a proactive government that would guarantee black Americans not only “equality as a right and a theory,” but also, as President Lyndon Johnson famously put it, “equality as a fact and as a result.”
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