Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. – Luke 11:47 (NIV)
Martin Luther King Jr. was a man, a normal but extraordinary man. He smoked cigarettes, he prayed, he got angry, he slept, he ate food. MLK did all the normal stuff. There’s no virgin birth or visit from the archangel Gabriel or golden tablets. He was born in the usual way, lived in an unusual way, and died in the usual way 1960s revolutionaries died. You would never know this if you watch American politicians, particularly conservatives, genuflect at the altar of King-ism. In the Kingist myth, MLK was a superhuman; this is more damaging than it sounds.
I’ve given the name “King-ism” to the particularly conservative strain of nonsense around Martin Luther King because once something becomes an “-ism,” the creators and inspirers of the ideology have lost control of it. After Karl Marx’s ideas spread, anybody could claim to be adhering to communism. Similarly, anything and everything can be called conservatism. An “-ism” is a machine controlled by the loudest voices. So, what is “King-ism?”
The broad strokes of King-ism go something like this: Prior to about 1965, America was segregated by race. It was somewhat unfair but most people were pretty fine with it. American unity and cooperation was at an all-time high. Cars were cooler than they had ever been or would be after (this part is true). Then, Martin Luther King Jr had this idea that segregation should end so everybody could live together in harmony. He was the first person who had ever thought this; he probably heard about it in the Bible.
MLK then marched around Birmingham, Alabama with other Black people. They were very quiet about it, they had all of the proper permits, and nobody was really bothered by it. There were a few people with some fire hoses who attacked these peaceful marchers. We don’t know who they were, but we know they were a significant minority. Dr. King then gave a speech in 1963 at the March on Washington in which he declared “I have a dream that we just don’t talk about race anymore.”
He went on to declare that white supremacy was nobody’s fault, nobody really benefited from it, and it had no lasting effects. All of the racists instantly changed their minds. Any racist law was overturned. Racism was ended. The very last racist, James Earl Ray, shot Martin Luther King outside of room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in 1968. The entire nation wore sackcloth and ashes as they mourned a national hero.
This is the ideology you’ll see if you turn on cable news any time on or around Martin Luther King Day. The very Republican politicians who are blocking a restoration of the Voting Rights Act in the federal Congress and assaulting elections in state congresses will croon the praises of MLK. They’ll tell you about the “true spirit of Dr. King.” This alleged spirit is always one that involves colorblindness.
They’ll tell you that the Civil Rights Movement was aimed solely at the idea that nobody would ever consider race or ethnicity ever again. The ultimate goal, the reason John Lewis marched on the Edmund Pettus Bridge was so we would all declare with one voice that race has no effect on American life.
So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tomb – Luke 11:48 (NIV)
I don’t care to argue that race still has a quantifiable effect on American life. If you haven’t figured that out by the Year of our Lord 2022, then you just don’t want to know. However, I’d like to try a metaphor; MLK was a preacher, and Southern preachers love a good parable.
Let’s say I owned stock in an aloe company whose products were used to treat sunburns. It would be in my own best interests for as many people as possible to get sunburned. Who tends to get the most sunburns? Fair-skinned White Americans. The paler the better for my bottom line. However, I can’t just go around with a UV light sunburning White Americans; that’s too crazy racist.
So as a member of Congress in the pocket of Big Aloe, I push a colorblind policy that limits the production of zinc oxide in the United States. The decrease in the availability of zinc, a crucial component to sunscreen, drives up the cost of sunscreen. This has nothing to do with race; it’s driving up the sunscreen costs for Black Americans too. This is just about zinc production.
Then, I add an amendment to the annual budget that increases taxes on oxybenzone. You’ve never heard of this chemical, it barely makes the news, and nobody really notices. Oxybenzone is another critical component of sunscreens. The increased taxes drive up the cost of sunscreen even further; several manufacturers get out of the sunscreen business entirely.
After a few years, sunscreen is incredibly expensive, there are only one or two brands available, and it sells out incredibly fast. The sunburn rate goes through the roof, my aloe sales skyrocket, and I get crazy rich. I never say that I’m targeting White Americans because nothing in the legislation mentions race; everything is completely colorblind.
For this scheme to work, I need a large number of Americans to believe it unthinkable that a congressman would intentionally target White Americans for his own gain. When shouty liberals start hollering about the disproportionate damage done to White Americans, I need friendly news outlets to run frequent stories about Black Americans getting sunburned. I need a myth that says racism has not only been defeated but that it is now impossible.
This is what King-ism accomplishes. King-ism is permission to benefit from racism while allegedly opposing racism.