Speaking Truth About Civil Rights

Generally, I hesitate to use that word, “truth.” But, for all the things I’ve read the last number of months, Nancy MacLean in Freedom Is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace comes about as damned close as a intellectual can. Below are just some short snippets of her Epilogue which is fully and carefully supported by the immense research and scholarship found in the rest of the work. She writes history largely how it should be written with ideas in mind about how it is and was used:

Numerous mainstream scholars, too, have accepted this creation myth and spread it. Ignoring the social movemen origins of such policies, and looking only at government officials, they perpetuate the misconception that there was no popular push for affirmative action. Remarkably, the notion that it was imposed from above rather than produced in a dialectic between grassroots outsiders and sympathetic insiders working together against powerful conservative resistance is now the conventional wisdom among social scientists and historians.

MLK, Jr. 1963 March on Washington. Notice the sign over his shoulder adovcating "Full Employment"

The myth about affirmative action’s origins is spun by men such as Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, and Ernest Van den Haag, and promulgated far and wide by others since, has reinterpreted these historic events for most white Americans. Many now genuinely believe the ventriloquist’s tale that an early color-blind movement, interested only in formal legal equality [the Civil Rights Movement], was later rerouted by bureaucrats and intellectuals bent on gaining power for themselves. The right even commandeers Martin Luther King, Jr., whom conservatives disparaged when he was alive, into a posthumous cameo appearance in this fantasy. King’s hope that his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” is endlessly repeated, while the occasion on which he spoke these words, a mass March for Jobs and Freedom, is ignored, as is the powerful call he made for affirmative action in the same year and his commitment to use the power of the government to end poverty for all Americans, white as well as black. Yet none of those active in working for justice, Martin Luther King, Jr., included, saw the strict color-blindness preached by today’s late converts to equal opportunity as an answer.

The right’s leaders understand that whether and how we remember the past shapes our analysis of the present and our visions of the future. “If there isn’t a problem,” notes one scholar of public opinion on race and policy [James R. Kluegel], “you don’t need a solution.”

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