In 1963, Civil Rights leaders organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. During the march there were a number of speakers and musicians, but one voice still rings in the ears of America. In his "I Have a Dream" speech, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged America to keep its promise of freedom and justice for all.
Though this speech is 50 years old, for many its message remains relevant today. One line of his 16-minute speech, is often repeated to defend an increasingly popular position of colorblindness: 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.
When King spoke these words, I'd like to suggest that he was not making a case for colorblindness, but rather for being color-conscious. To be colorblind is to miss a great opportunity to continue his legacy of standing for racial justice.
Calling Americans to action
When King's words resounded across the mall, America was steeped in racial tension. In the year preceding the March on Washington, several tragedies occurred: James Meredith was enrolled at the University of Mississippi during a deadly riot; the Children's Crusade erupted in several violent attacks broadcast on national television; Medgar Evers, a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was assassinated in his driveway; and sit-ins, boycotts, demonstrations, voter registration drives, and marches threatened the racial status quo. It is against this backdrop that King proclaimed: "Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood."
King definitely emphasized the injustice of being discriminated on the basis of one's color. He called his listeners to action: "Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed," he said.
On the surface, colorblindness may seem like the right action to take. It reflects a commitment to seeing other people strictly as individuals. Yet, in practice, being colorblind has not propelled us forward into recognizing and attacking racial injustice as King instructs. Rather, it has insulated us from having to acknowledge that racial disparities exist. By choosing to focus exclusively on the individual, we ignore the disparities still faced by communities of color.
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Austin Channing Brown is a TCW regular contributor and columnist. A resident director and multicultural liaison at Calvin College, Austin is passionate about racial reconciliation—and has a slight obsession with books. When she's not reading, you'll find Austin watching HGTV or updating her blog AustinChanning.com.