This MLK Day, It’s Time to Embrace the Hard Path on Race

Patrick Swanson / January 15,2023

When the words of an iconic young black minister from Georgia hit American ears, it signaled the crossing of the Rubicon on the question of civil rights—the die was cast, and there was no way for the country to go except into the future. Quoted (and misquoted) countless times since, Martin Luther King Jr’s words struck both sides of the American racial consciousness, both forcing white listeners to grapple with the pernicious reality of systemic racism and reminding nonwhite listeners that the promises of America belonged to them even if the current system failed to realize it. Seizing those promises was not merely some self-help doctrine but a clear moral imperative.

Though America’s checkered past has taken years to overcome (and in certain ways the battle isn’t over), there ought to be no denying that we’ve made historic progress. Sixty years since the country was introduced to Dr. King’s dream, the promises of that dream have indeed spread, albeit imperfectly, through this country across racial, social, and cultural lines. 

America’s race problem has gotten better. So why are we so divided? The modern American racial divide does not manifest via water fountains or bus seats, but over the extent of solutions for the racism that remains. This divide is a racial one in many ways: based on 2022 Pew data, a majority of black Americans see the main source of remaining American racism to be structural, whereas the majority of Americans generally view modern racism as being primarily on an individual basis. Predictably, this divide also follows party lines: while 19 percent of Republicans are willing to say there is no anti-Black racism in our society, only 3 percent of Democrats are willing to say the same.

Sixty years after MLK introduced his dream to the world, America’s racial state has gotten unbelievably better for millions of people. Yet it doesn’t feel like it: more than half of Americans say race relations in America are bad right now. Perhaps more shockingly, almost a third of Americans believe race relations have gotten worse since the 1960s. This isn’t just a policy problem. It’s a breakdown in the way we talk to each other about racial issues. As actual American racism plummeted, our racial tension hasn’t. What can we, conservatives in particular, do about it?

Several weeks ago, I wrote a piece at National Review about how conservatives should think about the terms they use to persuade people away from the excesses of the antiracist movement. In the wake of it, however, I felt like I’d left one thing out: we need to understand how to understand the motivations of the people who disagree with us on race.

People who support racial reparations are not all racist and evil. People who support antiracism are not all racist and evil. Sound controversial? Perhaps, but they’re true. Until we see evidence to the contrary, we should assume most of the people who support bad racial policies do so for more or less good reasons. If conservatives want to win the race debate, we have to highlight the disparities between the good motivations of the people who disagree with us and the profound injustice of the policies they suggest.

Let’s use the example of reparations. In absence of any evidence to the contrary, we should assume the 30 percent of Americans who support reparations are not doing so out of a secret desire to advance racism or crush white people or whatever ghoulish motivation we could speculate about. Those of us who don’t support reparations are not going to have success by simply throwing out talking points like “reparations are racist, don’t see color, that’s it.” It’s not a helpful strategy, because we’re falling into the age-old trap of arguing against things, instead of for people. If we want to debate reparations, we need to make more persuasive arguments. Race-based reparations policies only lift up the poor members of certain (albeit overrepresented) racial groups, while ignoring other marginalized people simply because they’re not part of those racial groups. Is that justice? There are far more just ways to deal with such situations, like race-neutral anti-poverty programs: such policies create rising tides capable of lifting the boats of millions of suffering Americans.

We have to understand people’s good motivations, and appeal to those good motivations to turn people away from profoundly unjust policy suggestions like reparations, or the endless activism cycle that Ibram Kendi-esque antiracism has to offer. To be clear, not everyone is operating in good faith, and we need the discretion to know when to walk away. Nor am I arguing we need to agree more—reparations policies are often unjust and Kendi’s antiracism is a deeply flawed and fundamentally corrosive philosophy. I don’t want to compromise on solutions to America’s racial tensions, but I also know conservatives aren’t reaching hearts and minds by assuming racist intent simply by virtue of bad racial policy. 

If we want to actually open people’s ears, we have to not treat them like “stupid woke liberals” but as human beings who care deeply about important issues. A majority of Americans across racial lines agree that “increased focus on issues of race and racial inequality” have not actually led to positive changes for marginalized people—it’s time for better ideas capable of better change.

As conservatives, let’s take the helm on restoring goodwill to America’s race debate. It starts with the way we talk: don’t assume malice. Appeal to people’s good motivations to show them the error of regressive racial policies they might support. And never fight against things—fight for people. This is how we start to fix our racial divide. Not with callous weaponized truth, or with spineless tactics of compromise, but by reaching out, in a spirit of unapologetic truth paired with understanding and patience, to our fellow Americans. Sixty years since MLK dreamed, there aren’t too many dreams more audacious than that.

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