This year’s celebration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. assumes special significance, poignancy, and urgency as we remember King during the same week that Donald Trump assumes the U.S. Presidency. My university, like many other institutions across the United States, paid homage to Dr. King. Yet leaving the commemoration, replete with speeches that praised King’s dream, I wondered whether the paradox of celebrating the life of a Black anti-capitalist, anti-war radical juxtaposed with Trump’s empty “Make America Great Again” sloganeering was lost on many of those in attendance. Trump’s victory, which stunned so many White liberals, resulted from a historically proven winning strategy that tapped White fear through racist appeals for “law and order” and virulent anti-immigrant sentiment tied to economic stagnation.
In the aftermath of Trump’s victory, many in the White liberal academic, media, and political establishment, who apparently viewed Hillary Clinton as entitled to the U.S. Presidency, fumbled to explain Clinton’s defeat. Columbia University Humanities Professor Mark Lilla, for example, in a New York Times Op-Ed , characterizes the electoral outcome as “repugnant,” yet he condemns liberal identity politics and the “obsession with diversity” for producing Trump’s victory. Lilla offers his own “make America great again” prescription for a “healthy” national politics based not on affirming and appreciating difference, but on “commonality” and returning to the liberal politics of the New Deal, racial exclusivity and all. Lilla’s appeal to contextualize education about the “major forces shaping the world” in their “historical dimension” sits uncomfortably beside a stunning lack of historical perspective, particularly in the presentation of Whiteness as a neutral norm and the glorification of the American project as the assimilation of difference.
Katherine Franke, Lilla’s colleague at Columbia, provides that critical perspective in her response in theLos Angeles Review of Books . Franke characterizes the liberalism championed by Lilla as the “liberalism of white supremacy…that regards the efforts of people of color and women to call out forms of power that sustain white supremacy and patriarchy as a distraction.” The Trump phenomenon, and analyses of it such as Lilla’s, represent, as Franke points out and as Michael Kimmel writes in Angry White Men , a sense of White, heteropatriarchal aggrieved entitlement. Anyone who possesses the deep understanding of American history advocated by Lilla would conclude that Trump’s victory actually demonstrates the victory of the White heteropatriarchal identity politics long deployed through relations of institutional power against many Others. Trump’s election is no anomaly; it illustrates a history of White terror and backlash against demands by historically oppressed groups for their rights and human dignity.
Returning to the memory of Dr. King, his life and legacy have long suffered the tragedy of many civil rights leaders, who have been caricatured to comfort White America and fit a partial historical narrative to preserve the status quo. King’s vast body of public intellectual work and activism have been reduced to his “I Have a Dream” speech, trotted out yearly to absolve the guilt and paralysis many Whites feel for their lack of personal commitment and action in the struggle for justice-racial, economic, social, and political-for which King and many others fought and died. Understanding King requires engagement with the entirety of his evolutionary thought, for example his Letter from Birmingham City Jail , in which he clearly articulated his disappointment with the white moderate “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
Yet a major aspect of the justice that King fought for, which seems lost in the sanitized celebrations of his life and work, included economic justice for all the people of the world. In an August 16, 1967 speech entitled ” Where do We Go from Here? ” King concluded that “the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society”:
“There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”
James Baldwin echoed King’s skepticism of the White moderate in his 1965 essay The White Man’s Guilt . White Americans, Baldwin wrote, possess the ability to see the “disastrous, continuing, present, condition which menaces them and for which they bear an inescapable responsibility,” but in lacking the “energy to change this condition, they would rather not be reminded of it.” Baldwin, like King, appeals to the force of history, not as something exterior to us, but as something that we embody, a force that exercises unconscious control over us and “is literally present in all that we do.”
Yes, the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency in what Gore Vidal famously called the United States of Amnesia illustrates yet again the masterful and predictable use of the White identity politics of fear, racial divisiveness, and class oppression. Trump’s election demonstrates the dearth of meaningful dialogues about class in our political discourses, specifically the intersection of race and class, and the historic expunging of the class consciousness of working people through the destruction of organized labor. Super-wealthy plutocrats like Trump and much of his cabinet, to whom Adam Smith referred in his day as “the masters of mankind,” maintain a clear sense of class consciousness lost by so many in the burgeoning precariat of disposable people mired in contingent work and living increasingly tenuous lives. Remembering Dr. King in the age of Trump should remind us that we cannot realize the totality of King’s dream without immersing ourselves in the full range of his thought and the grandeur of the Black intellectual tradition more broadly. Commemorating King’s life should also remind White Americans that we cannot develop a more complete and humane understanding of our country, ourselves, or the world without engaging with the force of history to which the African American intellectual tradition is integral.