When John Fitzgerald Kennedy became the first Irish Catholic President of the United States in 1960, his brother Robert remarked that in thirty years an African American could win the office too. In the event it took nearly fifty – and Barack Obama’s victory only now opens a new, and perhaps equally contested, chapter in American history.
The revealing final illustration in King’s Dream, the cover of the left-liberal magazine the Nation at the time of George W. Bush’s first inauguration in January 2001, shows an illustration by the influential cartoonist Art Spiegelman appropriating King’s vision in a troubling way. It features King’s dream turned to nightmare as Bush embraces Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice as the nation’s first black Secretary of State and National Security Adviser, respectively. “The implication, of course, was that King would be appalled not only by Bush’s election but also, and specifically, by his appointment of conservative blacks to his cabinet”, writes Sundquist, accurately. “The very existence of blacks like Powell and Rice appeared here to contradict the expectation that race – at least if one is African American – will determine one’s beliefs and political views.” That version of King’s dream bans ideological diversity within the race and subordinates character to colour, contradicting King’s famous aphorism that children be judged not “by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character”.
Sundquist’s provocative final chapter brings the story of America’s long grappling with civil rights and racial equality up to the present, looking particularly at issues of affirmative action and its evolution from an original focus on equality of opportunity to a more compensatory version that sometimes looks more like racial preference…
Sundquist finds a hint of what King’s view might be now in a letter to the editor of his manifesto Why We Can’t Wait, urging that “Any Negro Bill of Rights based upon the concept of compensatory treatment . . . must give greater emphasis to the alleviation of economic and cultural backwardness on the part of the . . . white worker whose economic condition is not too far removed from that of his black brother”…In his Affirmative Action Around the World: An empirical study the economist Thomas Sowell studied the effects of affirmative action programmes under a variety of names in almost twenty countries, including the oldest modern ones in India, as well as in China, Britain, Nigeria, Indonesia, Israel, Canada, Pakistan and the former Soviet Union and its successor states. After initial success, such programmes tend to stall. New opportunities harden into permanent entitlements. Sowell did not find a single affirmative action programme that ever disappeared because it had succeeded. Predictions of the temporary nature of such policies quietly fade away, leaving vast bureaucracies for monitoring and enforcement in place in government, educational institutions and business.
King’s glimpse of a shift from racial to economic forms of affirmative action prefigures the thinking of America’s first black President, who during the recent campaign prominently declared his own daughters “privileged” and therefore outside the scope of such programmes. He may find one of his greatest challenges is to combat not only the vestiges of the tyranny of categorization by colour, but also the more recently entrenched forces of some of its former remedies.
I think President Obama, however his presidency may turn out, is a true example that the American dream–as it has become more, er, inclusive–lives. One awaits the next Western country to elect a non-white (even a Turk in Germany) to head its government. (Latin Americans have already elected non-whites–one example.)