Neither Content Nor Character: Resisting the Right-Wing Hijacking of MLK

Martin Luther King Jr., AP Photo

One thing can be said for conservatives: they are nothing if not consistent when it comes to the things they say about race in America.

This truism was driven home yet again recently when I found myself in a debate over affirmative action with such a person, who insisted that folks like me, by virtue of our support for the concept, had abandoned the vision of Martin Luther King Jr.

King, I was assured for what seemed like the 11,729th time would have opposed affirmative action — what my detractor called “racial preferences” — because he believed that people should be judged on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

Faced with yet another fool claiming to be the philosophical soul mate of a man his conservative forebears literally despised when he was alive, I weighed my options.

First, I thought of mentioning that King had endorsed the concept of affirmative action as early as 1961, upon returning from India where similar efforts had been instituted for the Dalit caste.

Or perhaps that he did so again in his 1963 book, Why We Can’t Wait — which apparently no conservatives have ever read — in which he noted:

“Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree, but he should ask for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man enters the starting line of a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some incredible feat in order to catch up.”

Then I considered pulling up the video on my phone, which shows King shortly before he was murdered discussing the importance of actual financial compensation — reparations one might say — for black folks long denied opportunity even as the government facilitated the building up of white wealth. That video (for those given to thinking of King as a mere integrationist who just wanted everyone to get along), is here:

But in the end I decided not to bother with any of this. Instead, I decided to address the issue on the grounds favored by the right, which so seems to covet the “content of their character” line while conveniently ignoring the rest of the speech from which it was taken: a speech in which King noted Black folks had been given a bad check by white America, which had come back marked insufficient funds.

So I asked plainly: If he believes “character” should be the determining factor in things like college admissions or procuring a job, exactly how would that be evaluated? And what do the “merit” standards people like him endorse— such as standardized test scores or even years of work experience— have to do with character?

Was he honestly suggesting that SATs, ACTs, LSATs and MCATs — or the quantitative experience listed on a resume — actually indicates something definitive about a person’s character or lack thereof? More to the point, was he of the opinion that whites, by virtue of our higher average scores, relative to blacks — or because of our greater work experience in various fields — are of superior character to these folks of color?

It quickly became apparent that no one had ever asked him that question before. No one had ever forced him to explain the correlation between his two vaunted principles: merit, as evidenced by SAT scores or experience, and character. He had simply been allowed to assume such a correlation, absent even a scintilla of evidence.

And this, despite the absurdity of the presumed correlation.

After all, work experience reflects not just ability and merit, but also access and opportunity. Most jobs are filled by way of networking and connections — especially for the highest paying jobs — neither of which ensure selection for good character so much as the extent to which someone is well-positioned to know about and apply for a job in the first place. To the extent people of color are less likely to be in the best networks for the top positions, they will remain excluded having nothing to do with ability, and surely nothing to do with the content of their character.

Likewise, even claiming standardized tests to be good predictors of academic ability is questionable enough — at most they are only capable of predicting performance (and even then not very well) in the next year of education after having taken them — but to think there is a correlation between test scores and character seems absurd on the face of it.

His reply? None at all to the question of acquiring jobs; and as for test scores and college? He insisted that higher test scores were indicative of superior intelligence and that intelligence represents an element of one’s character.

Well, actually, according to Webster’s Dictionary, the definition of character is, “moral strength, self-discipline, fortitude.” That says nothing about academic performance, or even intelligence however defined.

Indeed, how could it? The Nazis were led by men who probably would have scored highly on the SAT. So too those who designed napalm, or sanctioned the slaughter of America’s indigenous populations. So too Ted Bundy, or the Unabomber, who was a certifiable genius but rather lacking it appears in the character department.

So which is it? Should we judge people on the basis of character, or rather on the basis of previous academic achievement — no minor question, since the two have no necessary correlation to one another?

I, for one, would be happy to vote for character, but I doubt those who have misappropriated the concept from King would like where the notion leads.

Because when it comes to which students have exhibited the most fortitude — which remember, is one of the key elements of character — defined as “the strength to bear misfortune and pain patiently and calmly,” there can be little doubt that students of color and poor folks of all colors would come out on top.

Which students, after all, have had to persevere against the odds more often: rich kids who attended the best schools and whose parents could afford tutors, test prep classes and other enrichment materials? Or poor and working class kids whose schools had substandard resources, less experienced teachers, and whose parents struggled to make ends meet?

Which have had to bear the most pain? Whites whose membership in the racial majority allows us to go through life fairly oblivious to our own race and the role it plays in our everyday experience? Or students of color, whose minority status often reminds them that they are seen by many as perpetual outsiders, and who know of the negative stereotypes held about their group by the general public, usually no later than the time they are eight years old?

To ask the questions is to answer them.

For students who have faced obstacles of race and class to even partially overcome those obstacles and score, say, an 1100 (out of 1600) on their SAT says something rather amazing about their character. Despite having the odds stacked against them they refused to give up, they strove for excellence, and though they finished the K-12 race still behind their more privileged competition, they closed the gap nonetheless.

If one starts a race three laps behind and finishes only two laps behind, is it not obvious that such a runner is objectively better than the one who hit the tape ahead of them? Didn’t they run faster, harder, with more determination? Didn’t they demonstrate character? Or do we simply reward the one who finished ahead, even though their ability to do so was largely the result of a pre-existing advantage, and would have obtained even in the absence of character altogether?

And what of self-discipline, that other aspect of character to which Webster’s refers?

Could it be that blacks would here too bump whites from slots in elite colleges, if indeed the criteria for acceptance were the content of one’s character? Quite possibly: after all, blacks show far more restraint and self-control than their white peers when it comes to things like drug and alcohol abuse: the latter of which is a serious problem on American college campuses.

According to the data, whites in 8th, 10th and 12th grades are all more likely than comparable blacks to be current drinkers. In the past month, 1 in 9 white sophomores have been drunk (more than double the rate for blacks), and one-fourth of white seniors have been drunk: about 2.5 times the rate for black seniors.

In the past two weeks, 1 in 9 white 10th graders have engaged in binge drinking (drinking five or more alcoholic beverages at one sitting), as have 1 in 5 white 12th graders: in both cases rates of binging that are at least double the rates for comparable blacks.

White drinking relative to black drinking remains high in college as well. Neary half of full-time white college students binge drink, compared to less than a fifth of black full-time college students, and white college students are a full six times more likely than our black counterparts to binge drink on a regular basis.

Other studies have found somewhat lower rates of occasional binge drinking for all college students, regardless of race, but the disparities between whites and blacks even in these studies remains huge. One study, for instance, estimated that about 6.7 percent of black collegians binge drink compared to 35 percent of whites, a ratio of more than 5:1.

So might this data suggest a decided lack of self-discipline for an awful lot of college-age white folks, and thus, by definition, lesser character?

Although drug use is roughly the same across racial lines, white youth appear more likely to use heavier drugs than black youth. According to data from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, white 10th graders are a third more likely than their black counterparts to have used drugs other than marijuana in the past year, and by 12th grade, whites are 50% more likely than their black counterparts to have used hard drugs in the previous year.

In college, the disparities continue, with white students more than twice as likely as black students to smoke weed or use other illicit drugs like Ecstasy, twice as likely as black students to abuse prescription opioids and three times as likely to abuse stimulants, again suggesting a decided lack of restraint, and casting doubt as to the “character” of all these presumably “more qualified” white students attending institutions of higher learning.

So perhaps what all this means is not that affirmative action gets in the way of promoting “character,” but rather, that it actually helps facilitate it, by promoting opportunities for students of color whose restraint, self-discipline and perseverance far eclipse that of their heavy-drinking, hard-partying white brothers and sisters.

So by all means, let’s encourage schools to judge students on the content of their character. Perhaps over time, whites would even learn to assimilate to the black norm of hard work and sobriety, and begin to “act black,” which certainly couldn’t hurt their academic careers or our nation. After all, we would all reap the benefits of character-based standards, and an end to the damage done by smart but pathological members of the dominant majority.

But at the very least conservatives, and no matter what you decide about affirmative action, you need to take Martin Luther King Jr’s name out your mouth.

He was of the left, not the right. He is one of ours, not yours. You have no claim on him. You will have to make do with Donald Trump and Sean Hannity.

And good luck with that.

I’m an antiracism educator/author. My latest book is Dispatches from the Race War (City Lights, December 2020). I post audio at

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