Critical Race Theory and the Misappropriating of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Speaking Against the Vietnam War, St. Paul Campus, University of Minnesota, April 27, 1967 (Wikimedia Commons)


During a July 12, 2021 episode of The Rubin Report, a conservative-leaning talk show where the host, Dave Rubin, uses long-form interviews to examine current social and political issues, Republican politician Kevin McCarthy evoked a rather tiresome talking point about Martin Luther King that set off a proverbial firestorm on social media. In less than 20 seconds, McCarthy pronounced the supposed inconsistencies between MLK’s “dream” and the tenets of Critical Race Theory (CRT). Citing school boards as the battleground for the next conservative campaign, the California Republican hoped to spark the ire of conservative parents by making a sweeping generalization of King’s legacy, claiming that proponents of CRT were “against everything Martin Luther King has ever told us: ‘Don’t judge us by the color of our skin,’ and “now they’re embracing it…they’re going backwards.” McCarthy’s claim trended on Twitter, as it was either criticized or embraced by those in the public square, oftentimes demarcated by one’s political self-identification as “right” or “left.”

McCarthy’s claim exposes how King’s legacy is sanitized by rightwing figures. He asserts that CRT does not only go against MLK’s “dream” in 1963, it goes against “everything Martin Luther King has ever told us.” This statement provides the crux of the issue. By emphasizing it goes against everything the Civil Rights leader “ever” told Americans about race relations, McCarthy and his conservative counterparts assume that the totality of King’s teachings are encapsulated in a single statement of one speech he gave in 1963. 

McCarthy surely knew he was preaching to the choir, as Dave Rubin has repeated the claim of King’s colorblindness throughout his Youtube career. Right-leaning pundits from organizations like Campus Reform and PragerU, both online platforms espousing conservative ideas intended to counter the liberal teachings on modern American Universities, have repeated similar talking points. 

As debates over Critical Race Theory overtook public discourse throughout the Summer of 2021, conservative commentators followed a familiar pattern of invoking a sanitized version of MLK’s legacy that relies upon a selective reading of his many public speeches. The tactic transforms King from a radical civil rights activist who criticized capitalism, US imperialism, income inequality, and white supremacy, into a harmless symbol who simply wanted Americans to transcend race and imagine that racial inequities are a problem of the past. This latter version of King was specifically molded by conservatives in the post-Civil Rights to reject movements seeking systemic change. For if the United States is truly “colorblind,” they argue, then any focus on race and racism is unnecessary.

Thankfully, scholars and left-leaning activists have not been silent on these misrepresentations. One cartoonist creatively reconstructed how an anti-CRT activist would react when confronted with King’s criticisms of structural racism in the United States. MLK’s daughter, Bernice King, has confronted McCarthy and rightwing politicians like Josh Mandel on Twitter, noting how both men are grossly misrepresenting both her father’s legacy and the lessons of CRT.

But the question remains: where do King’s teachings stand in comparison to critical race theory? To start, it is necessary to understand that within the 2016 edition of Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, editors Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic argued that CRT followed in the “American radical tradition” of Martin Luther King, Jr. (5). They positioned Critical Race Theory as a successor to his social justice philosophy that condemned American imperialism, classism, and anti-Black racism, noting that King’s legacy had been co-opted by “a rampant, in-your-face conservatism” designed to impede racial progress (30). So, despite conservatives’ lazy efforts to place King in opposition to CRT, many of the theorists themselves wholly embraced him as a precursor to their own scholarship.

It is, of course, impossible to condense the numerous writings of critical race scholars alongside those of the prolific Dr. King in a few paragraphs, but we can identify some core beliefs amongst them to determine how they align with one another. In Derrick Bell’s seminal 1995 essay “Who’s Afraid of Critical Race Theory,” he examined how CRT was a necessary tool for exposing systemic racism in US society, bluntly asserting, “As I see it, critical race theory recognizes that revolutionizing a culture begins with a radical reassessment of it” (893). The article notes how CRT is especially useful in critiquing the discourses of colorblindness in the post-Civil Rights era, noting that adherents to this method seek to “disrupt” and go beyond  legal policies like “integration, affirmative action, and other liberal measures,” adding that these scholars are highly suspicious of the “liberal agenda.” The reference to a “liberal” agenda seems to critique those in the establishment who were satisfied by the legislative changes of the 1960s and remained complacent as racial injustices devastated Black communities in the era of “colorblindness.” 

Indeed, CRT was developed among scholars of the post-civil rights generation as a lens for detecting the covert methods through which Black Americans were continuously marginalized in American society. Kimberle Crenshaw, a distinguished law professor and one of CRT’s foundational thought leaders, recently explained that practitioners of this theory “weren’t just looking at civil rights practice,” they were developing a methodology that helped a new generation of researchers “grapple with how law has created and sustained race—our particular kind of race and racism—in American society.” Critical Race Theorists use a variety of methods to critique the persistence of structural racism in the supposedly postracial era of US society, exposing how legal apparatuses continually perpetuate racist policies and racial injustices even after the legislative victories of the 1950s and 1960s. They also issue calls for anti-racist practices that confront and dismantle the structures of white supremacy that persisted into the present.

For Martin Luther King, Jr., one of his final works, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, published in 1967, clearly demarcates his thoughts surrounding how white America largely abandoned the Civil Rights Movement after its legislative victories in the mid-1960s, and discusses a need to directly invest in the Black American community to achieve collective uplift. King used race-conscious messaging to note how white Americans held an “oppressor status” that caused too many of them to carry an “ambivalence” toward Black America’s continuous pursuit of social justice (109). King directly addresses the critiques of white Americans who attempted to redirect attention from the Black struggle, noting that the descendants of enslaved people in the United States held a wholly unique history of oppression that distinguished their contemporary issues from those of Irish or Italian populations, proclaiming “Negroes were brought here in chains long before the Irish decided voluntarily to leave Ireland or the Italians thought of leaving Italy” (110). It was the “stigma of color” that rendered Black Americans in a more precarious position when compared to white ethnic groups (110).

In similarities with the “radical reassessment” espoused in Bell’s essay, King bluntly stated: “as a first step toward the journey to full equality, we will have to engage in a radical reordering of national priorities” (90). In similarity to many CRT scholars, King critiques complacent white people who benefit from structural racism while denying that they are themselves “racist” (126); he notes that America still has a “debt of justice” it must pay to its Black population (116); he advocated for a “guaranteed income” (271), and he asserted that such a wealthy nation holds a moral imperative to ensure all of its citizens have access to “a decent house, an adequate education and enough money to provide basic necessities for one’s family” (138). An objective reader will notice how such ideas are in opposition to the colorblind King imagined by conservative commentators, and that they align with the more radical concepts of Critical Race Theorists who argue that the manifestations of anti-Black racism are unique in US society, and that anti-racist action must be a primary method toward dismantling white supremacy and radically restructuring society. Much more can be said on this topic, but these brief selections exemplify how the teachings of MLK and CRT are objectively much more closely aligned than they are in opposition.

In reality, the CRT debate is just another moment in the American tradition of misappropriating MLK, ranging from the contests over affirmative action; the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement; and the debates over socialism vs. capitalism, to name a few. When CRT is no longer politically useful, conservative pundits will find another point for their fearmongering and recycle the same colorblind King as a prop to misrepresent their target. Though it is tiring, scholars and activists must continually respond to these misrepresentations on all available platforms. The true believers of the conservative cause may willfully ignore the evidence, but as we make such blogs and essays more widely available, we can reach many others and introduce them to a Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King who believed that achieving a better society requires an honest reckoning with history; who unapologetically fought for the downtrodden and the poor; and who envisioned a “genuine revolution in values” in creating a more just and equitable society (201).

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Tyler Parry

Tyler Parry is an Assistant Professor in African American and African Diaspora Studies at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He studies slavery, the African Diaspora, and the Atlantic world. Follow him on Twitter @ProfTDParry.

Comments on “Critical Race Theory and the Misappropriating of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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    Great read, I surely needed this because I’ve been seeing this “colorblind “ tactic used often lately. I recently saw a video with interviews by prominent Black actors’ words being used to promote this same tactic.

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    Exceptional article, Mr. Parry.

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