Have we Forgotten Martin Luther King’s Lesson?

Essay, Civil Liberties, Gerry Bowler, Rodney Clifton

Our neighbours to the south celebrate a national holiday on Monday, January 20. It is a day to remember and honour Martin Luther King Jr., the United States’ most famous civil-rights leader, and, arguably, the world’s most influential social activist.

For those who don’t remember, King was shot by an assassin on April 4, 1968. King and his supporters are justly remembered and celebrated for ending racial segregation in public transportation and public schools. In fact, King died for this cause.

King’s civil-rights concerns were framed by his “I have a dream” speech which he gave in Washington two years before he was shot. “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.”

In that speech, Martin Luther King outlined the essence of what became, for many years at least, the American dream. King’s ideal was that people would be judged by their talents and skills and not by the colour of their skin, actual, self-claimed, or identified by others.

Unfortunately, on this Martin Luther King Day, the U.S. has forgotten King’s lesson. Instead the U.S. has reverted back to the ideology he spent his life fighting against—people being judged on their racial characteristics.

For example, a number of colleges and universities have established residences that are segregated by race. Prestigious Wesleyan University has established Malcolm X House for Black students along with five other racially segregated residences. Brown University has Harambee House, Latinx House, and an Asian-American House.

As well, many colleges and universities have segregated admission and graduation ceremonies as well. Harvard University, for example, has fought a lawsuit by a group called Students for Fair Admissions because the university was allegedly discriminating against Asian students with very high entering grades in favour of Blacks with much lower grades.

All these examples are, of course, troubling to older Americans who walked with Dr. King in Selma and Montgomery. They thought they were putting their lives on the line for a better America. They thought they had seen the last of racial segregation. They did not expect to see racism in “the red hills of Georgia” or in “the state of Mississippi, a state that sweltered with the heat of injustice” in 1965.

What these Americans fought for has been turned on its head by a new generation of students and bureaucrats. Now students and administrators believe people should be judged, at least in part, by their racial characteristics.

Indeed, it is surprising that Canada has followed the Americans in judging people on their race. Canada now has affirmative action programs for Indigenous students, for example, in admission to many college and university programs. For example, the University of Manitoba has racial-based admission criteria for students applying to Education and Medicine. To get in, students are judged by the groups their ancestors belonged to rather than by their own ability and skill.

Increasingly, more Canadian universities are hiring professors on the basis of race. The Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship has written letters of warning to a number of universities that have advertised for jobs that specify certain racial and/or gender characteristics. Competent people without these racial and/or sexual attributes need not apply. Even more problematic, universities are awarding prestigious research chairs, such as those in the Canada Research Chair Program, on the basis of race and sex.

It is time to go back to the ideal Dr. King put his life on the line for. It is time to admit students on the basis of their talents and skills and not on the basis of their racial characteristics, real or putative.

In other professions, “blind” procedures are used in hiring. For example, symphony orchestras have candidates for a position walk on a carpet so selection committee cannot tell if they are women, wearing high heel shoes, or men. Candidates perform while being shielded by a curtain so the hiring committee cannot see them and cannot use their gender or race in judging their performance. Skill and talent shines through.

In other professions, such as competitive sports teams, there are powerful incentives to select the best players rather than players from the races that coaches and managers may prefer. In sports, hiring on the basis of characteristics that are not related to doing the job at an extremely high level has a direct effect on the success of the team, and the success of the team has a big impact on the salaries, prestige, and job-prospects of the managers and coaches. This is why we celebrate men like Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby who broke the colour barrier in professional baseball. They showed that skill and talent was more important than skin colour.

The best way to end racism is to stop treating people of different races differently. Unfortunately, there are many people whose livelihoods depend on insisting on racial distinctions. Every university in North America has departments which ensure that students and faculty are categorized by the colour of their skin. The University of Michigan, for example, has an Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, whose staff numbers 93 with an annual budget of over $10 million. This bureaucracy is larger than many academic departments devoted to teaching and research, and all 93 of these bureaucrats would be out of a job if the university decided to treat students of all races equally.

No one seems to mind that the diversity of ideas has shrunk under the impact of leftist groupthink and hiring as long as the melanin content of flesh meets the desired quotient. This is where universities are wrong. Skill and talent should be the only criteria for hiring and promotion.

It is about time for Canada to honour Martin Luther King for his ideals and it is, once again, time to move away from judging people on the basis of their race. It is time to make King’s dream our dream again.

Rodney A. Clifton is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Manitoba and a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Gerry Bowler is a Canadian historian and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.