« WSAU Opinion Blog

OPINION - "... by the content of their character" part II

by Chris Conley


"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."

I've blogged on this Martin Luther King Jr. quote, wondering what the late civil rights leader would think of modern-day affirmative action -- where people are judge in large part on their skin color.

After this weekend's civil rights march anniversary in Washington I have a different thought on the same quote. Specifically "by the content of their character." What do you do when many people in a certain group are of poor character?

First, let's state the obvious. Rights are rights, and aren't predicated on someone's behavior. In the eyes of the law and our government, all must be equal.

But discrimination and inequality most often happen in the interactions between individuals. It's unrealistic to think the government can fix all those little one-on-one things. Minorities are more likely to be followed by security in a department store. Minorities find it harder to hail a taxi at night. A vacant apartment is more likely to be no longer available, a job is more likely to be 'just filled yesterday', a hotel is more likely to have no vacancies. All of these situations are morally wrong. The government may be able to have some corrective role after long-term mistreatments pile up. But in specific cases, the government will be ineffective. This is fundamentally about how people treat each other.

Martin Luther King Jr. challenged whites and blacks. He spoke forcefully about all of the situations I've detailed above, and he challenged whites to rise above those prejudices. But he also spoke to blacks, about the importance of education, about keeping families together, about raising children, about obeying the law, and the vices of drugs and alcohol. Those all pertain to the content of a person's character.

We've made progress in race relations since Dr. King's speech in 1963. Yet in the minority community, all 'content of character' measures have gone backwards. Whites and blacks will both need to change before this dream is realized.

Chris Conley