Misappropriating MLK in the Critical Race Theory DebateRoundup
tags: conservatism, culture war, Martin Luther King Jr., teaching history, critical race theory
Tyler Parry is an Assistant Professor in African American and African Diaspora Studies at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He studies slavery, the African Diaspora, and the Atlantic world. Follow him on Twitter @ProfTDParry.
During a July 12, 2021 episode of The Rubin Report, a conservative-leaning talk show where the host, Dave Rubin, uses long-form interviews to examine current social and political issues, Republican politician Kevin McCarthy evoked a rather tiresome talking point about Martin Luther King that set off a proverbial firestorm on social media. In less than 20 seconds, McCarthy pronounced the supposed inconsistencies between MLK’s “dream” and the tenets of Critical Race Theory (CRT). Citing school boards as the battleground for the next conservative campaign, the California Republican hoped to spark the ire of conservative parents by making a sweeping generalization of King’s legacy, claiming that proponents of CRT were “against everything Martin Luther King has ever told us: ‘Don’t judge us by the color of our skin,’ and “now they’re embracing it…they’re going backwards.” McCarthy’s claim trended on Twitter, as it was either criticized or embraced by those in the public square, oftentimes demarcated by one’s political self-identification as “right” or “left.”
McCarthy’s claim exposes how King’s legacy is sanitized by rightwing figures. He asserts that CRT does not only go against MLK’s “dream” in 1963, it goes against “everything Martin Luther King has ever told us.” This statement provides the crux of the issue. By emphasizing it goes against everything the Civil Rights leader “ever” told Americans about race relations, McCarthy and his conservative counterparts assume that the totality of King’s teachings are encapsulated in a single statement of one speech he gave in 1963.
McCarthy surely knew he was preaching to the choir, as Dave Rubin has repeated the claim of King’s colorblindness throughout his Youtube career. Right-leaning pundits from organizations like Campus Reform and PragerU, both online platforms espousing conservative ideas intended to counter the liberal teachings on modern American Universities, have repeated similar talking points.
As debates over Critical Race Theory overtook public discourse throughout the Summer of 2021, conservative commentators followed a familiar pattern of invoking a sanitized version of MLK’s legacy that relies upon a selective reading of his many public speeches. The tactic transforms King from a radical civil rights activist who criticized capitalism, US imperialism, income inequality, and white supremacy, into a harmless symbol who simply wanted Americans to transcend race and imagine that racial inequities are a problem of the past. This latter version of King was specifically molded by conservatives in the post-Civil Rights to reject movements seeking systemic change. For if the United States is truly “colorblind,” they argue, then any focus on race and racism is unnecessary.
Thankfully, scholars and left-leaning activists have not been silent on these misrepresentations. One cartoonist creatively reconstructed how an anti-CRT activist would react when confronted with King’s criticisms of structural racism in the United States. MLK’s daughter, Bernice King, has confronted McCarthy and rightwing politicians like Josh Mandel on Twitter, noting how both men are grossly misrepresenting both her father’s legacy and the lessons of CRT.
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