New Words for the Same Old Hustle

by | Feb 24, 2002

What would Martin Luther King Jr. have made of a recent ad last month (Jan 21) in the Boston Globe? On Page 10, to honor King’s memory and legacy, a full-page ad reproduced the peroration of his unforgettable 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise […]

What would Martin Luther King Jr. have made of a recent ad last month (Jan 21) in the Boston Globe?

On Page 10, to honor King’s memory and legacy, a full-page ad reproduced the peroration of his unforgettable 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. . . .. 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.

“I have a dream today. . . .”

It was the greatest American speech of the 20th century, and it is right and proper and really very wonderful that 40 years after it was delivered, we regard the man who delivered it as an American hero and are uplifted and inspired by his words.

But if Page 10 would have raised King’s spirits, Page 1 would have broken his heart.

On Martin Luther King Day, the Globe’s front page featured a story on what it called the “growing debate” over the use of the word “minority” to refer to racial or ethnic groups. It reported that the M-word has, to some, “the outdated ring of ‘Negro,’ ‘Oriental,’ ‘Spanish,’ and ‘Eskimo.’ ” (Spanish?) Among those making that claim is Charles Yancey, a black member of the Boston City Council. “It implies inferiority and inequity among Americans,” he said last year in proposing to ban the term from all city documents. His motion passed unanimously — a good thing, as former Councilor Thomas Keane observed, since otherwise what would we have called those who voted against it?

It goes without saying — but for the sake of any readers who have just emerged from a cave in Tora Bora and don’t understand how things work in America today, I’ll say it anyway — that Yancey’s purpose in condemning “minority” was not to drive home the point that the law knows neither majority nor minority but insists on one standard for all.

It was not to make it clear that the sine qua non of “racial justice” is color-blindness.

It was not to emphasize the gross indecency of racial preferences and set-asides — of quotas that assign jobs or contracts or promotions or seats in the freshman class on the basis of skin color or family origin.

It was not to ensure that Boston’s laws be written in language unpolluted by any hint of racial or ethnic classification.

No. It was simply to find new words for the same old hustle.

Every person quoted in the Globe’s story seemed to take it for granted that American institutions should go on sorting human beings by race and ethnicity. Brooke Woodson, who heads the city’s Office of Minority and Women Business Enterprise, favors dropping “minority.” Pedro Pirez, a Cuban immigrant whose construction firm qualifies for special advantages as a “minority-owned” business, favors keeping it. But both endorse the entrenched system of preferences that subordinates equality and merit to race in the name of “diversity.”

As a matter of plain linguistic fact, it is untrue that “minority” has a pejorative connotation. Virtually no one objects to the term, writes Randall Kennedy, the Harvard law professor whose newest book is a history of the word “nigger,” other than “a few determined people with an exorbitant sense of aggrievement.”

How far the civil rights movement has fallen! Once it struggled for the dignity and equality of all Americans and called, in A. Philip Randolph’s words, for “the abrogation of every law which makes a distinction in treatment between citizens based on religion, creed, color, or national origin.” Today it fusses over the word “minority.” King, who knew the difference between real insults and make-believe ones, would be appalled.

“When you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored,’ ” he wrote from the Birmingham jail, “when your first name becomes ‘nigger’ and your middle name becomes ‘boy’ . . .. and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’ . . . — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

Difficult to wait for what? What was it that King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were trying to achieve when they faced Bull Connor’s dogs and hoses? An America in which the law would continue to play racial favorites while city councilors piously debated the merits of “minorities” vs. “people of color”?

The question answers itself. King did not protest the double standards of Jim Crow so they could be replaced with the double standards of affirmative action. His dream was of a world in which the law would take no notice of race or ethnicity, a world in which there would be no legal disadvantage to being a minority — and no advantage, either.

Americans today are a remarkably tolerant and unbigoted people — especially when compared with others around the world — and yet our government and laws are obsessed as never before with race and racial categories. That obsession in turn infects our workplaces, our schools, our media. Thirty-four years after Dr. King’s death, we are more mired in race than ever. If he could see us, he would weep.

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. This is an excerpt from his weekly newsletter, Arguable, and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe to Arguable at no charge, click here.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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