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.
The above quoted is just one of many often cited from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's iconic "I Have a Dream" speech. It's also one that's often taken out of context by many people, mainly those who want to twist the above quoted's ultimate meaning to fit their own perspectives.
In other words, I've seen and heard instances where the phrase "content of their character" is often used to implicitly reinforce one's prejudices and preconceived notions of a particular group. During my brief lurkings at the Free Republic, I ran into constant examples of people denigrating a certain segment of black Americans as criminal-minded and predisposed to general thuggery, only to claim that they were merely looking at "the content of their character, as Dr. King would have them do."
Then there are others who use "the content of their character" to justify their opposition towards measures developed to achieve the sort of equality that was denied for so long (and continues to be denied, in many cases.) For example, opponents of Affirmative Action may ask that if Dr. King was so intent on having people judge black Americans solely on "the content of their character," then perhaps they don't need such a measure at all, since "the content of their character" would supposedly be all they needed to integrate and thrive in the American mainstream.
Of course, this ignores both historic and ongoing efforts to exclude black Americans from the mainstream. It's the equivalent of beating a man into paraplegia and then expecting him to win a marathon. Asking why he would need someone to push him around would be an unnecessary action.
Personally speaking, I believe Dr. King wanted his children to grow up in a world willing to acknowledge its shortcomings and work sincerely and diligently to correct those flaws. He didn't want them growing up in a world that used the notion of "colorblindness" as an excuse to completely paper over and ignore the deep-set problems of structural and institutionalized racism.
He also didn't want them growing up in a world where his speeches, his words and his legacy would be appropriated and perverted into unrecognizable soundbites that certain people can hide behind to mask their own inability or unwillingness to judge others solely on character and not based on preconceived notions.
The idea of being asked to judge someone solely by their character, only to be told to help them based on something other than their character confuses many, especially if they are not cognizant of the underlying problems that ingrained and institutionalized racism pose. In fact, it seems to certain people as though black Americans want to enjoy a double-standard of sorts - help us based on race, but don't judge us based on race.
As a result, a group of people whose socio-economic growth was deliberately throttled by a combination of sanctioned institutional action and personal prejudice are now constantly told to go about the process of recovery alone, without any sort of assistance. After all, why need a helping hand when mainstream society finally sees fit to overlook their own prejudices in favor of "the content of their character?"
Joy DeGruy's account of her own personal character being blatantly overlooked by a cashier in favor of said cashier's own preconceived notions drives home why "the content of their character" takes on a bitter edge on the tongues of some. That people are content to judge based on their own assumptions, only to break out the "content of their character" chestnut to reinforce or explain away their assumptions shows that there's a lot of work to be done in untangling the Gordian knot of ethnic relations in this country.
That DeGruy had to carefully consider her response without falling into the dreaded "angry black woman" stereotype before her sister-in-law, noted as able to pass for white, stepped to her defense with a heavy dose of white privilege welded against the cashier, is also an unfortunate indicator of Dr. King's dream being a distant goal.
White privilege is being able to dress however you want and not be thrown out of a store, harassed by security guards, or assumed you’re some sort of thug.
Every time I walk out of my house, I need to question my appearance. Do I look dangerous? Do I look like a shoplifter? Do I look like I’m up to no good? If I wear sweat pants and sneakers, will people assume I’m from the ghetto? If I dress too nicely, will people assume I bought my clothes with drug money? If I walk into a store, will the shop assistants ignore me or will security escort me out? If I speak too loudly, will people assume I’m being “sassy” or “trashy”? If I speak too quietly, will people assume I’m not very bright? And so on.
This is what people have to deal with when others choose to judge them on assumptions and notions. Trayvon Martin and countless others were judged on assumptions about their character and not based on who they really were as people. Those who judge based on assumptions then carelessly throw around the "content of their character" to impose a "colorblind" scenario that denies black Americans the right to address their concerns and ask for assistance and recompense.
From Dr. King himself:
"It is impossible to create a formula for the future which does not take into account that our society has been doing something special against the Negro for hundreds of years. How then can he be absorbed into the mainstream of American life if we did not do something special for him now, in order to balance the equation and equip him to compete on an equal basis?
It is obvious that if a man is entering the starting line of a race three hundred yeas after another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up with his fellow runner."