The Meaning Behind Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech

by | Jan 17, 2021 | Racism

On Martin Luther King Day--and every day--we should focus on the antidote to racism and alternative to racial thinking: individualism.

A version of this article was first published in 2002. CM is republishing it because its message still remains relevant today.

What should we remember on Martin Luther King Day? In his “I Have a Dream” speech Dr. King said: “I have a dream that my four 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.”

This statement means that in judging other men, skin color should be ignored–that it should not be a factor in evaluating their competence or moral stature. It follows that skin color should not be a factor in taking actions toward other people, e.g., hiring and admitting to universities.

What has happened in the years following King’s murder is the opposite of the “I Have a Dream” quote above. Colorblindness now has been replaced with color preference in the form of affirmative action.

No amount of rationalizing can disguise the fact that affirmative action involves implicit or explicit racial quotas, i.e., racism. Consider the realm of work as a case in point. Taking jobs away from one group in order to compensate a second group to correct injustices caused by a third group who mistreated a fourth group at an earlier point in history (e.g., 1860) is absurd on the face of it and does not promote justice; rather, it does the opposite. It promotes racism.

You cannot cure racism with more racism. Singling out one group for special favors (through affirmative action) ignores the fact that people are individuals–not interchangeable ciphers in an amorphous collective.

Consider a more concrete, though fictional, example. Suppose that since its creation in 1936, the XYZ Corporation refused to hire redheaded men due to a quirky bias on the part of its founder. The founder now dies, and an enlightened board of directors decides that something “positive” needs to be done to compensate for past injustices and announces that, henceforth, redheads will be hired on a preferential basis. Observe that: (1) this does not help the real victims–the previously excluded redheads; (2) the newly favored redheads have not been victims of discrimination in hiring, yet unfairly benefit from it; and (3) the non-redheads who are now excluded from jobs due to the redhead preference did not cause the previous discrimination and are now unfairly made victims of it.

The proper solution, of course, is simply to stop discriminating based on irrelevant factors. Although redheaded bias is not a social problem, the principle remains the same when you replace hair color with skin color.

The traditional solution to the problem of racism is colorblindness, or, from the other side of that coin, individual awareness. For example, in the job sphere there are only three essential things an employer needs to know about an individual applicant: (l) Does the person have the relevant ability and knowledge (or the capacity to learn readily)? (2) Is the person willing to exert the needed effort? and (3) Does the person have good character, e.g., honesty, integrity?

The rational alternative to racial diversity, focusing on the collective, is to focus on the individual and to treat each individual according to his own merits. This principle should apply in every sphere of life–from business, to education, to law enforcement, to politics.

Americans have always abhorred the concept of royalty, that is, granting status and privilege (and, conversely, inferiority and debasement) based on one’s hereditary caste, because it contradicts the principle that what counts are the self-made characteristics possessed by each individual. Americans should abhor racism, in any form, for the same reason. On Martin Luther King Day–and every day–we should focus on the proper antidote to racism and the proper alternative to racial thinking: individualism. We need to teach our children and all our citizens to look beyond the superficialities of skin color and to judge people on what really matters, namely, “the content of their character.”

Copyright 2002 Ayn Rand Institute. All rights reserved. That the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) has granted permission to Capitalism Magazine to republish this article, does not mean ARI necessarily endorses or agrees with the other content on this website.

Edwin A. Locke is Dean's Professor of Leadership and Motivation Emeritus at the R.H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland. He is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), the American Psychological Association, the Society for Industrial & Organizational Behavior, and the Academy of Management. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (Society for I/O Psychology), the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Management (OB Division), the J. M. Cattell Award (APS) and the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the Academy of Management. He, with Gary Latham, has spent over 50 years developing Goal Setting Theory, ranked No. 1 in importance among 73 management theories. He has published over 320 chapters, articles, reviews and notes, and has authored or edited 13 books including (w. Kenner) The Selfish Path to Romance, (w. Latham) New Directions in Goal Setting and Task Performance, and The Prime Movers: Traits of the Great Wealth Creators. He is internationally known for his research on motivation, job satisfaction, leadership, and other topics. His website is: EdwinLocke.com

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