As the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. continues at Rutgers, a philosopher weighs in on the rise of voter suppression, anti-protest legislation and efforts to roll back racial progress

Fifty-six years after Martin Luther King Jr. told students at Southern Methodist University that “we have come a long way, but we still have a long, long way to go,” Rutgers philosopher Derrick Darby is making a similar argument.

In his new book, A Realistic Blacktopia: Why We Must Unite to Fight, Darby draws on King, W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black radical tradition to explore how to make progress in the antiracist struggle.

Derrick Darby
Derrick Darby is the founding director of the Social Justice Solutions Research Collaboratory.
Hilary Nichols

Darby, a Henry Rutgers Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, discusses alliances, voting rights, affirmative action and the limits of racial remedies.

Martin Luther King Jr. argued that voter suppression undermines a citizen's right to make choices, undermining their dignity. Equal voting rights is something King strived to get the nation to do. What would he think of voter access today?

The forms of voter suppression seen across America would have been a major concern for Dr. King. Tactics include tougher photo identification laws, closing or reducing polling places, attempts to eliminate Sunday early voting and making vote by mail more difficult.

It is doubly shameful in a democracy like ours that values equality and justice when it creates a significant burden for groups such as communities of color, seniors, young people and the poor.

Members of these groups tend to have more limited opportunities to vote because of voter suppression and long wait times on Election Day. We saw this in Georgia in 2020 and during the recent midterm elections. During the 2020 election, Georgia criminalized the distribution of water or snacks to people waiting to vote. Dr. King would have been appalled. He would have supported efforts to make voting easier – including issuing a federal voting ID card, enacting automatic voter registration, expanding early voting and ensuring greater access to polling places and multilingual ballot support.

During the civil rights movement, King recognized building interracial alliances to address social problems that disproportionately affected African Americans. What were some examples?

Dr. King believed addressing voter rights and civil rights concerns was crucial to getting America to live up to its promises and potential. Relying on the power of nonviolent direct action by interracial alliances of people committed to these and other causes was vital to this effort. The 1963 March on Washington for jobs and freedom is the most well-known example of the power of such alliances.

King and other prominent civil rights organizers such as Bayard Rustin believed freedom wasn’t just about racial and other forms of discrimination. It was also about freedom from poverty, hunger, joblessness, illiteracy, preventable illness, etc. Because these issues don’t recognize racial divisions, they provide a broader basis for building alliances.

King’s support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis and his efforts to build the Poor People’s Campaign are examples of objectives that demanded broader alliances.   

Although America is awash in race and race-relations discussions, antiracist books are everywhere and diversity seminars are hot tickets, many efforts are underway to roll back the racial progress clock. What are some of these efforts?

Following the senseless murder of George Floyd by the police, there was a massive public outcry and scores of organized Black Lives Matter protests around the nation. Protesters – a large and diverse group representing different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, classes and religions – took to the streets to demand social justice and end police brutality. These protests sought racial progress.

Some state legislators proposed, and in some cases enacted, anti-protest legislation in response. Alabama enacted a law in 2021 that upgraded obstructing a sidewalk during a protest to a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail. Mississippi has a pending bill that would make “violent or disorderly assembly” of seven or more people a felony and would apply to peaceful protesters who pose a danger to property, personal injury or obstruct law enforcement.

In your opinion, affirmative action was once a way to provide African Americans with better educational opportunities, but that time has passed. What do you suggest in its place?

The use of racial quotas for college admissions was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the case Regents of Univ. of California v. Bakke. Existing efforts to promote diversity in schools have had to show that considering race as a plus factor among other factors is part of a holistic approach to ensuring diversity. The U.S. Supreme Court will soon rule on whether this practice is permissible. I’m not optimistic about the outcome.

Various alternatives have been proposed, such as targeting socioeconomic diversity and targeting top students in districts for admissions, but the jury is out on whether they can achieve the relevant kind of diversity without triggering court challenges.

Whatever the outcome, greater investment in preparing kids from disadvantaged communities and providing support for families seeking opportunities for educational enrichment for their children is part of a broader solution.

You argue securing racial justice in America calls for "big tent" remedies. That is, antiracists must build partnerships among populations interested in issues that impact them collectively. Could you explain further with an example?

Big tent remedies involve paying attention to matters of economic justice in addition to racial justice and remaining mindful of their interconnectedness.

Marginalized populations are disproportionately impacted by health crises such as COVID-19 because they typically have no health care or poor care. They typically work low-wage jobs with no benefits, sick leave and time off. Individuals in these populations also can’t work from home, as many work in the service industry. They must rely on public transportation, which disproportionately increases the risk of exposure and illness in poorer Black and brown communities.

Health concerns, getting paid decent wages, better working conditions, affordable child care and educational opportunities are among the issues of broader concern.