By: Avigail Greenberg  | 

The Pundit: MLK’s Nightmare and the Link Between Racism and Opposition to Democracy

Having just celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day last month, I’m reminded of a chilling statement made by the civil rights leader just over three years after his landmark 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech: “I saw my dream turn into a nightmare.” King had come to see the progress of the civil rights movement as superficial, as his peaceful ideology had begun to be overshadowed by violent “Black power” movements, and he had grown pessimistic in his evolving realist outlook on the true state of equality. 

In his famous 1963 address, King drew a correlation between the strength of a democracy and the state of its racial equality. Unfortunately though, our democracy itself is a contradiction; our nation was founded on freedom and equality, yet has fostered systemic oppression since its inception. According to King, our democracy — built under the premise that “all men are created equal” — cannot succeed until there is full racial equality. This “dream” hadn’t been achieved during King’s lifetime, and, though strides have been made, hasn’t yet been fully realized. 

Glaring proof of this came from last year’s insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, when supporters of then-President Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol to try to interfere with certification of the 2020 presidential election. The effects of this continue to shake our country, representing the threat our democracy faces. Some have theorized that mistrust in government caused the eruption of a full-scale insurrection. I argue that there’s more to the backsliding of our democracy by connecting this phenomenon of mistrust in government weakening the state with King's theory that racial prejudice leads to the failure of democracy. “As long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having recurrences of violence and riots over and over again,” he said. He predicted that those who disregard the problem of racial inequality are those who condone events that collapse democratic systems like the Jan. 6 insurrection, which is a further example of the “nightmare” of violence hindering progress Dr. King mentioned in 1967. If racial inequality results in a weak democracy (as postulated by Dr. King), and low trust in government results in weak democracy, then low trust in government and racial prejudice are covariants. Let’s explore how racial prejudice is actually the driving force behind the lack of faith in government institutions. 

Surveys conducted by the American National Election Studies (ANES) during elections between 1992 and 2020 have proven that racial prejudice is a predictor of lower trust in government. Studies also indicated that such biases have links to skepticism about the fairness of the 2020 election. The theory that racial prejudice is further backed by a separate study done on faith in previous elections shows a higher level of distrust during the Obama elections of 2008 and 2012 than in the 2016 election and previous elections. An elevated level of skepticism when a Black president was elected suggests a correlation with racial prejudice. Distrust in government hinders the success and ability of the federal government to function. Just as King warned, democracy is compromised by the continued existence of racial prejudice.

A Reuters poll shows that 53% of Republicans believe the election was tainted and that former president Donald Trump actually won. Dangerous rhetoric from the former president and his supporters has spurred skepticism regarding elections with the tactic of appealing to racial prejudices (i.e. the idea of illegal voters, violent agitators, etc). Trump catalyzed fears of some white Americans who have long viewed the attempt to promote racial equality as anti-white and discriminatory. (This motivated many white Americans to vote for Trump; a study published in the Washington Post stated that “racial resentment is the biggest predictor of white vulnerability among white millennials.”) This sentiment is directly linked to mistrust in the election system and results, as seen in the ANES study. It again suggests that views on racial equality are behind the lack of faith in the government. 

Blossoming anti-government paranoia is a problem on both sides. The harmful phenomenon of distrust exists in African Americans facing systemic racism through inequality in workplaces and police brutality. There are those in the community who therefore become wary of government agencies and law enforcement. Their difficult history in the country causes their distrust; it disenfranchises people, causing discouragement that leads to lower voter turnout, skewing the key institution of democracy that is fair elections. 

A major detrimental ramification of mistrust in the federal government is inefficiency. With public distrust and little support, it’s hard for the government to effectively achieve goals. As political theorist David Easton argued in his “Systems Analysis of Political Life,” democracy can’t function without cititzens’ trust in institutions. Low election faith leads to low faith in the entire democratic system, driving people to violent anti-democratic methods and ideals, such as an insurrection attempt like the one we saw on Jan. 6.

I’d like to draw a connection between the current state of distrust and Dr. King’s message. If racial prejudice fuels mistrust in elections and government, and since democracy can’t function without trust in such institutions, then Dr. King’s hypothesis of racial prejudices preventing the success of democracy has proven true. Jan. 6. was a materialization of King’s “nightmare” of violence and racial supremacy movements overpowering his peaceful ideology due to dangerous distrust in government. To strengthen our democracy, we must face the problem of racism and work to actively solve it. We must continue to fight to bring Dr. King’s dream, rather his nightmare, to fruition.

Photo Caption: The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Library of Congress