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Uproar Over Essays Turns MLK’s Dream Inside Out

Uproar Over Essays Turns MLK’s Dream Inside Out

The University of Montana asked students, staff and community members to participate in an essay contest on the legacy of the

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

When the school released the results last month, Montana students and race activists across the country accused university officials of racism and disrespect. That’s because all four winners were white. Turns out some would rather the school had honored King by judging entrants on the color of their skin rather than the content of their submissions.

The four contest winners started receiving threats, and the African-American studies program, which had sponsored the contest, removed their photos and essays from its website. A central fact—no black students had even submitted an essay—failed to defuse the racism charge.

Critics blasted “shameful” university officials for holding a contest at all. A lecturer on the college race circuit admonished the university for thinking that “there is a universality around writing an essay,” when in reality blacks express themselves “completely different.” One black student sniffed that participating would have been a “sellout/compromise.” “Having grown up in all white spaces,” he posted on


“I often avoided events such as this because I knew the purpose was a performative gesture from the administration.” How the student determines when events are not “performative gestures” was left unspecified.

The African-American studies program was denounced for not canceling the competition when the organizers realized the skin color of the six entrants. “I cannot understand how anyone would think remembering the legacy of MLK Jr. is achieved by giving four white girls a shout out,” wrote a critic. “Do not center Whiteness on the day we are supposed to remember MLK Jr.’s legacy.”

But the contest rules had no racial prerequisites. The essay prompt—“How are you implementing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy here at the University of Montana?”—was universal. The competition’s very purpose, according to

Tobin Miller Shearer,

Montana’s African-American Studies program director, was to challenge the entire campus to fight racism, since black students complained about having to do the “heavy lifting,” in Mr. Shearer’s words, in the battle against the university’s white supremacy.

Outraged observers accused the contest committee of not specifically soliciting submissions from black students. In fact, the committee, whose majority consisted of “persons of color,” including the presidents of the Black Student Union and the Latinx Student Union, had asked members of the Black Student Union to participate. The students’ failure to do so, despite a $250 first prize, was nonetheless deemed the university’s fault and another instance of the university silencing minority voices. Woke white students declared that they would never presume to write about MLK and racism, since doing so would be an example of “speaking OVER black voices.” If no white students had submitted an essay, that too would have demonstrated campus bigotry.

Naturally, the demographics of the University of Montana student body and faculty were cited as evidence for the white supremacy charge. The undergraduate population is 79% white and 1% black; the faculty is nearly 90% white. Never mentioned was the state’s demographics: 89% white and 0.6% black, according to the 2019 census estimate. To boost its black enrollment, the university would have to poach black students from other states, whose colleges are equally desperate to increase their own diversity numbers. The essay submission rate for white undergraduates was 0.1%. If the school’s population of black students had submitted at the same rate, 0.08% of the essay contest submissions would have been from black writers. That’s essentially zero, which is, in fact, how many such submissions were received.

The university has been predictably repentant, calling the criticism “fair.” Yet its Facebook page also notes, with a hint of exasperation, that a student’s skin color does not preclude him from submitting an essay or working toward equality. The university’s creation of a new office for diversity and inclusion and the search for a new specialist for diversity, equity and inclusion in the human resources department will now take on added urgency. It was not lost on the contest critics that Mr. Shearer, the African-American studies director, himself is “nonblack,” as the local NAACP president put it. He will be watched.

The race industry’s search for racism in an America going out of its way to atone for its past is increasingly desperate. A fantastical alchemy is required, which converts good faith efforts at inclusiveness into instances of bigotry. Academics and activists police racial boundaries with a zeal that recalls Jim Crow, buttressed by ignorant conceits such as “cultural appropriation.” Dr. King’s colorblind ideal has been thoroughly repudiated: whites who write about implementing Dr. King’s legacy today are threatened, rather than welcomed to the cause. Power now flows from assertions of victimized racial identity, even as academics and activists declare race a social construct.

Racism “separates not only bodies, but minds and spirits,” wrote Dr. King. Such separatism appears to be the goal of those who claim to be his spiritual descendants.

Ms. Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of “The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture.”

On Oct. 7, 2019, student protesters prevented the then acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan from addressing the audience. Image: Jim Lo Scalzo/Shutterstock

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