MLK Today: Taking the Blinders Off White Privilege

Excerpted from David’s new book Revisioning Activism.


How far have we really come since Dr. King’s passing in 1968? Could those who argue that we now live in a truly post-racial society be wearing the blinders of white privilege? Consider the following.

Have we achieved Dr. King’s goal of eradicating racial prejudice?

Some would surely say yes. Recently I dined at a fairly pricey French restaurant, where I had a conversation with the white woman at the table next to mine. She and her husband lived in Manhattan’s Upper East Side and also had a vacation home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I currently live. I grew up in New York City; that was our common ground. We got on the topic of the choking death of Eric Garner and the protests in its wake.

She said, “Before Mayor de Blasio spoke up in support of the black protests, there weren’t really any racial issues in New York. We had gotten past that.”

“That’s simply not true,” I retorted. “The racial tension had been there all the time. De Blasio didn’t create it. Many folks, especially black folks, knew it was there all the time.”

martin-luther-king-jr-i-have-a-dream-speech_lFrom where did this woman derive her perception? I don’t think she was mean-spirited; in many ways, she was quite intelligent. However, a certain psychological intelligence was absent—the ability to realize that her framework was her experience as a wealthy white person.

She had the unearned privilege of never being disadvantaged by racial stereotypes. She had the privilege of not needing to listen and feel the pain of black New Yorkers, many of whom have stories and perspectives that clearly wouldn’t match her own. She had the privilege of needing neither data nor experience to feel free to issue her definitive opinion.

In short, she drew on her unconscious privilege to conclude that racial prejudice was a thing of the past.

Is “color blindness” the key to being judged by the content of our character?

Many argue, “If color blindness was good enough for Martin Luther King, then it ought to be good enough for a society that still aspires to the movement’s goals of equality and fair treatment.”1

Much of the argument for color blindness relies on a superficial reading of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, when he said, “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.” Based on this statement, some argue that Dr. King believed racism would be ended when Americans no longer saw race.

What allows many folks, especially white folks, to maintain this belief? I know of no data to support the notion that this kind of color blindness helps alleviate racial disparities or racial injustice. In my experience, many who espouse this view simply have no idea what it is like to live in a dark-skinned body. They have the unearned privilege of not having to think of themselves racially.

Dr. Beverly Tatum, former psychology professor and current president of Spellman College, used to regularly conduct an experiment with her psychology students. She asked them to complete the sentence, “I am _____.”2 She found that while students of color typically mentioned their racial identity, white students rarely mentioned being white. The same was true for gender; women were more likely to mention being female. She concluded that racial identity for white folks is not reflected back to them and thus remains somewhat unconscious.

In short, black folks simply don’t have the privilege of not seeing themselves as a color, and they know others will see them as such, whereas many white folks easily enjoy not seeing their own color. Trying to not see race before we are truly awake to racism’s ugly present and past assigns racism to our individual and collective shadow, rendering its harm more insidious because it hides in seeming good-heartedness and innocence.

To quote Dr. King, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

Is affirmative action contrary to Dr. King’s dream of not being judged by the color of our skin?

I recently dialogued with a white man who insisted that Dr. King was opposed to affirmative action. He was immune to my presentation of Dr. King’s views from my extensive reading on the issue. Instead, he said, “I choose to take Dr. King at his word; the man was quite articulate and capable of saying what he meant.” Again, he referred to Dr. King’s “Dream” speech. He continued, “It seems pretty clear that for members of any race to expect preferential treatment because of their race is unacceptable. It doesn’t matter how noble one’s motives. It’s wrong.”

What was wrong was his reading of Dr. King. In his 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait, King wrote, “Whenever the issue of compensatory treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more.”4 Later, in 1967, he wrote, “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him.”5ordersignedcopy

However, we must not stop there. Again we must ask: Why was it so easy for this white man, despite my argument about King’s actual words, to maintain his position? While I confess to not knowing this man’s mind and heart, many white folks I have dialogued with are unaware of the preferential treatment they receive—that they are the beneficiaries of the affirming actions of a racially biased society, while black folks are still the beneficiaries of disconfirming actions.

For example, when blacks apply for a job, they are less likely to get selected than whites (even if the applications are identical in every other way).6 White folks get “extra points”—a kind of affirmative action.

Black folks are more likely to get stopped and frisked than white folks, even when what they are carrying is identical.7 That’s a kind of affirming action for whites.

Black folks are up to three times more likely to get the death sentence than whites in similar cases.8 I could go on about differential school funding, bank lending practices, and more. The truth is that white folks, in general, receive perhaps less overt but quite real and potent benefits that black folks do not.

When a person swims in an ocean of relative affirmation, it is almost natural to be unconscious of the fact that their achievements, confidence, and successes are not only a result of their own capacity and efforts. Unconsciousness of these privileges makes it easy to conclude that a more overt policy of affirmative action is a form of preferential treatment to black folks instead of a leveling of the playing field.

If we are to enrich the national dialogue about race, if we are to make further progress toward Dr. King’s dream, our collective awareness of unconscious privilege must grow. Then we may find what Langston Hughes exhorted us to wake up to:

That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise:
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.9

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  1. Ronald Turner, “Misusing MLK Legacy and the Colorblind Theory – II. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Color-Awareness,” Race, Racism and the Law, accessed March 28, 2016, http://www.racism.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=869:justice06-1&catid=143&Itemid=120&showall=&limitstart=2.
  1. Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 20–21.
  1. Terry Levine, “Sincere Ignorance and Conscientious Stupidity,” Terry Levine, July 11, 2011, accessed March 28, 2016, http://www.terrylevine.com/2011/07/sincere-ignorance-and-conscientious-stupidity.html.
  1. “The Slow and Tortured Death of Affirmative Action,” The Black Commentator, accessed March 28, 2016, http://www.blackcommentator.com/49/49_cover.html.
  1. Jeff Wattrick, “Yes, Henry Payne, Martin Luther King Really Did Support Affirmative Action,” Deadline Detroit, August 28, 2013, accessed March 28, 2016, http://www.deadlinedetroit.com/articles/6195/yes_henry_payne_martin_luther_king_really_did_support_affirmative_action#.VLV_cUvOXKA.
  1. Marianne Bertrand, “Racial Bias in Hiring: Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal,” The University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, 4, no. 4 (2003), accessed March 28, 2016, http://www.chicagobooth.edu/capideas/spring03/racialbias.html.
  1. “Stop-and-Frisk Data,” New York Civil Liberties Union, accessed March 28, 2016, http://www.nyclu.org/content/stop-and-frisk-data.
  1. Katherine Beckett and Heather Evans, “The Role of Race in Washington State Capital Sentencing1981-2012,” Death Penalty Information Center, January 27, 2014, accessed on March 28, 2016, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/WashRaceStudy2014.pdf.
  1. Langston Hughes, “Justice,” Poem Hunter, accessed March 28, 2016, http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/justice/.