Joe Biden and other politicians may evoke Dr. King's legacy but their actions are an affront. The duopoly and the oligarchy who control them are the embodiment of the "triple evils" that King warned about.
On November 12, 1951, in the midst of the Korean War, the Black Communist William Patterson gave a speech honoring the extraordinary Civil Rights Congress petition We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief from a Crime of the United States Government Against the Negro People. In it, he argued that both the Democratic and Republican parties, along with all three branches of the U.S. government, were complicit in the racist warmongering that emanated from the genocide against Black people. “[T]he battle flag of the Confederacy flies today over hills captured by Americans, called ‘UN forces,’ fighting in Korea,” he argued, “where the Chinese are called ‘chinks,’ the Koreans ‘gooks’ and the Negroes fighting under Confederate jim-crow ideology, if not a Dixie flag, remain McArthur’s or Ridgeway’s ‘niggers.’” Patterson held that “some Negro men and women” who had been bought by “money and a title” would travel around the world preaching “dollar democracy” to obfuscate this nexus of war, racism, and capitalist imperialism that was “monopoly’s way of life—and death.” Patterson’s scathing analysis could easily be applied to the militarist domestic and foreign policy of the Joseph R. Biden administration, which has followed, uninterrupted, from that of Donald J. Trump and his forerunner, Barack H. Obama.
In 2021 alone, the U.S government continued its neocolonial occupation of Haiti; oversaw a chaotic withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and then imposed a brutal sanctions regime on the Taliban that has pushed the country to the brink of collapse; dropped bombs on Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen; imposed or renewed crippling sanctions and embargoes against countries including Cuba, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe; expanded AFRICOM throughout the continent under the guise of the “war on terror”; heightened tensions with Russia over Ukraine and NATO encroachment; and deepened the cold war with China.
As they acknowledged the MLK holiday, Biden and his band of intersectional imperialists, like their political predecessors, assert this widespread immiseration as an extension of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy and “dream.” This distortion will likely rest on the claim that Biden has assembled the most diverse cabinet in U.S. history, including the first Black and Asian female as the second in command of the most powerful and dangerous war machine in the world. However, even a cursory examination of King’s praxis reveals its incommensurability with Biden’s blood-soaked racial capitalism thinly veiled by Black political class collaboration. On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was assassinated, Dr. King gave a speech entitled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” that echoed William Patterson’s excoriation of war, racism, and capitalist exploitation. King stated, “A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will ‘thingify’ them, make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally economically… And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments. And will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together.” Based on this stance, King would be horrified by the United States’ unbridled imperialism—and the numerous ways that brutality has redounded within U.S. borders. This includes intensified Sinophobia, enthusaistic funding of the 1033 program and murderous police, and the failure to pass the lackluster Build Back Better bill while allocating an unprecedented $786 billion to U.S. militarism in the guise of “defense.” State and local governments, abetted by the U.S. Supreme Court, have contributed to this widespread reaction, attacking voting rights and the ability of teachers to tell the truth about racism and oppression in their classrooms; criminalizing racial justice protesters while admonishing attempts to punish January 6 insurrectionists; launching an assault on abortion rights; and leaving workers to fend for themselves amidst another tsunami of COVID-19 infections.
King’s presidential address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in August 1967 further conveys the irreconcilability of the current administration’s policies and King’s position. He reiterated that “the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.” He also castigated the United States for its willingness to spend billions on “an unjust, evil War in Vietnam” and on a Cold War space race with the Soviet Union instead of investing in an economy that ensured full employment, guaranteed annual income, the elimination of poverty, and decent housing and education for all. Likewise, King spoke affirmatively about the Cuban Revolution and its use of violence to overthrow the violent Batista regime—support that is at odds with the U.S. government’s vicious embargo and attempt to undermine the Cuban revolutionary process through its financial and political support of reactionary elements in that country.
Moreover, King’s admonition that we be “dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not on the basis of the color of their skin,” can be understood as a rejection of identity reductionism and the role of people like Kamala Harris, Lloyd Austin, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus in upholding U.S. imperialism and militarism at the expense of poor, colonized, and racialized people domestically and abroad. In other words, King’s words render shameful the Biden administration’s cynical multiculturalism that legitimates the moral and political bankruptcy of Black imperialists in the name of diversity and inclusion. By contrast, King believed the United States needed to “undergo a radical revolution of values” and to “get on to the right side of the world revolution” to achieve his global vision of peace, prosperity, and people over profit. In particular, the nation needed to “rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society” because “when machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism [were] incapable of being conquered.” Unfortunately, the immense profits gained by private corporations during the COVID-19 pandemic, on the one hand, and the widespread suffering of the global majority as a direct result of U.S. negligence, incompetence, and greed, on the other hand, have indeed rendered “the giant triplets” unconquerable under extant political leadership.
The racist, imperialist, war-driven, and anti-poor program of the Biden administration and the Black political class that dutifully upholds it is not only antithetical to King’s stated principles but also disrespects his vision of what the United States could, and should, be. This regime’s disingenuous invocations of Dr. King will thus ring hollow—just like its deceitful claim to offer a substantive alternative to Trump.
Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly is the 2021-2022 Visiting Scholar in the Race and Capitalism Project at the University of Chicago and an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Political Science at Carleton College. She is completing a book manuscript titled Black Scare/Red Scare to be published with University of Chicago Press.