March 11, 2024

Embracing the Icon, Debating the Message

Bossick Headshot

By Mike Bossick, Professor of Sociology, Central Piedmont Community College

I was asked to give a presentation on Martin Luther King Jr. Day about racism and poverty. The more I thought about Dr. King’s message of racial and economic justice in the context of recent backlash to the promotion of diversity, equity, and inclusion, I wondered whether most people support the sanitized folk hero version of MLK, or his message of radical racial and economic justice? Keep in mind that anyone under the age of 55 wasn’t even alive when MLK was assassinated in April, 1968; much of our culture’s collective memory comes from soundbites, summaries, or short excerpts of his work.

While MLK, the famous Morehouse alumni and sociology major is revered today, that wasn’t always the case. The Pew Research Center compiled public opinion data originally collected by Gallup showing MLK’s favorability rating between 1963-1966 as ranging between 33-45%. In addition, National Public Radio (NPR) discusses evidence in the MLK/FBI documentary stating that the FBI under director J Edgar Hoover feverishly sought to discredit King. Keeping him under heavy surveillance, they sent him compromising tapes they recorded and even created and sent an anonymous letter suggesting he should kill himself. Clearly, the former sentiment from the public and the FBI does not align with MLK’s 2011 favorability rating of 94% when the MLK Memorial opened in Washington, DC.

While racial segregation, redlining, and race-based employment discrimination are legally prohibited, there is still a substantial amount of evidence documenting unequal outcomes for African Americans. For example, African Americans have less educational attainment, income, wealth, and political representation than Whites. US Census data shows that in 2022, 41.8% of non-Hispanic Whites had a Bachelor’s degree, compared to 27.6% of African Americans.

When exploring income, according to 2023 data from Oxfam America, in 39 states, 40% or more of African American workers made less than $15 per hour. For comparison's sake there is no state where 40% of White workers make less than $15 per hour. As for wealth, data from the Pew Research Center states that the typical lower-income White household had 20.5 times the wealth of the typical lower-income African American household in 2021. Lastly, even with growing diversity in the US Congress, the Pew Research Center notes that racial minorities made up only 25% of the 118th Congress in 2023 despite the fact that US Census data shows racial minorities represented over 40% of the US population.

As a sociologist, the evidence documenting racial inequality is clear. However, there is a fierce culture war taking place over whether our society should prioritize equality or equity, with both sides interpreting MLK’s famous quote, “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” in different ways.

A push for equality reflects a colorblind ideology suggesting that everyone should be treated the same; skin color should not be relevant in shaping opportunities and experiences because it is an affront to meritocracy, a core American value. This aligns with the sentiment that bringing attention to differences based on race is counterproductive and a cause of racial division. As such, a colorblind philosophy criticizes any educational or employment programs that incorporate race (e.g. scholarships, using race as one of many criteria in college admissions), believing it is up to each individual to maximize their opportunities solely based on hard work and their abilities.

In contrast, an emphasis on equity would suggest that what MLK desired is not our current reality, and behaving as such only perpetuates unequal opportunities and results. Documentation of structural racial inequality suggests that with MLK’s emphasis on social justice, there is an ethical imperative to rectify the situation.

For example, increasing the purchasing power of Pell Grants, a program that helps lower-income students of all racial groups, would disproportionately help African American students access a college education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 72% of African American college students receive Pell Grants compared to 34% of Whites. To address disparities in wealth, first time home buyer credits could help lower and middle-income African Americans who might struggle otherwise to afford a down payment on a home. The National Association of Realtors reports that there is a 29% gap between African American and White homeownership. In short, people advocating for equity might support efforts that address the intersection of race and class to resolve structural disparities.

If MLK was alive today, would he be widely supported if he called for reducing tax breaks to corporations or spending on the military to support the expansion of social programs? Would he still have a 94% favorability rating if he called out racial disparities in the criminal justice system? Would his actions and values have appeal to cut across the ideological spectrum, or would he be labeled again as a disruptive radical?

So, as you consider the distinction between equality and equity, think about how this fits with the different ways our culture interprets MLK’s legacy. More broadly, what sociological theories, concepts, or data, can help you explore this topic? How might structural functionalism, the conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism aid in this process? Think sociologically and support MLK’s legacy of using critical thinking to evaluate society.


The article prompts readers to consider the extent to which MLK's broader message of racial and economic justice is embraced, particularly in light of recent backlash against diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives geometry dash world. It raises important questions about how society remembers and interprets historical figures and their legacies.

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