Billionaire hedge fund chief and burgeoning Internet Main Character Bill Ackman used the afternoon of Martin Luther King Jr. Day to claim the civil rights leader would have been against the movement for diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education and businesses. It’s a claim that MLK’s daughter has previously rejected.
Ackman made the comments during a Space conversation on X (formerly Twitter) alongside Democratic presidential candidate Dean Phillips and X owner Elon Musk on Monday. The discussion came two days after Ackman pledged to donate $1 million to a super PAC supporting Phillips’ longshot primary campaign against President Joe Biden.
Ackman said that King’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech is “precisely about a world where people will be judged not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. And when I came to learn about the DEI movement, which is an ideological movement, it’s really the reverse of that.”
He continued: “I think Dr. King would be very opposed to this sort of ideology, even though you know, diversity is a good thing, even though of course, a culture where everyone feels comfortable and included is critically important.”
— Dean Phillips (@deanbphillips) January 15, 2024
The comments from Ackman fit comfortably within a broader effort by the ultrarich and right-wingers to to twist MLK’s words to meet their worldview.
Republican candidate Vivek Ramaswamy used a similar argument while speaking to NBC earlier this month, and Ron DeSantis quoted King to advocate for his Stop Woke Act in 2021. “[King] said he didn’t want people judged on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character,” the Florida governor said at the time.
MLK’s daughter Bernice King has criticized how opportunities have co-opted the civil rights activist’s legendary speech (specifically his hope that his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character”) to project their own ideas and beliefs. “My father’s dream and work included eradicating racism, not ignoring it,” she wrote on X just last August.
People using “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” to deter discussion of, teaching about, and protest against racism are not students of the comprehensive #MLK.
My father’s dream and work included eradicating racism, not ignoring it. pic.twitter.com/GnbrIeGqRj
— Be A King (@BerniceKing) August 1, 2023
Lerone Martin, Director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, also criticized how folks often misinterpret MLK’s words as a “call for color-blindness” in an interview with CNN on Sunday.
“Colorblindness asks us to explain systemic racial inequality by using ‘raceless’ explanations,” Martin said. “It asks us to explain or solve a phenomenon but bars us from addressing the root cause of the phenomenon.”
“For years, conservatives have romanticized a revisionist history of King as their model Black citizen—even though he was an outspoken activist who spoke against American wars, was labeled a communist, and supported more social services for the people,” Rolling Stone contributor Ernest Owens wrote in a Daily Beast op-ed in 2021. “King has been reduced to a few quotes about nonviolence that these cynical Republicans use to chastise living Black leaders and organizers whom they despise.”
Even so, Ackman’s argument — that King, who hoped to see a day where all Americans would be treated as equal, would oppose the concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion — is a brazen one.
“Fairness is important, but I would say equity is probably worse because it’s about equality of outcome. And the premise is that if, you know, if everyone takes a test, where everyone is going through some kind of corporate process, the allocation isn’t equal by race,” Ackman said. “Then there’s something inherently racist about the structure of whatever that thing is or society or imply systemic racism.”
Phillips appeared to agree with Ackman and Musk, who has been on a recent anti-DEI jag of late. “We should be a meritocracy, but we should also ensure that everybody can participate in that meritocracy,” Phillips said. “And I think we can all agree on that. That’s to me, the grand solution for our country is to do just that. There has been injustice, we can correct it so that everybody participates with a beautiful outcome.”
Ackman has generated headline after headline in recent weeks, after leading a successful campaign to oust Harvard University’s president, Claudine Gay. While the effort initially focused on antisemitism on Harvard’s campus, the campaign against Gay quickly turned to allegations of plagiarism. That prompted a Business Insider report finding instances where Ackman’s wife, a former high-profile professor at MIT, plagiarized directly from Wikipedia — and days of lengthy posts from Ackman melting down on X.
Over the weekend, Ackman posted on X that he’s planning to donate $1 million to We Deserve Better, a super PAC that supports Phillips. “This is by far the largest investment I have ever made in someone running for office, and I am making this investment at a high-risk, but critically important moment for his campaign,” Ackman wrote.
We Deserve Better has not yet reported its finances, so it’s not clear who else is funding the group. But the super PAC has significant Silicon Valley ties. We Deserve Better group’s executive director is Matt Krisiloff, an early employee at OpenAI who reportedly dated OpenAI CEO Sam Altman. Krisiloff currently leads a biotech company called Conception that is working to create human eggs from stem cells. His brother Scott, who works at a nuclear fusion startup backed by Altman, is on the super PAC’s board of directors, according to ad buying records.
Phillips has criticized the corrupting influence of big money in politics in an era of super PACs, which were created in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. In November, Phillips said Citizens United was “one of the most abhorrent decisions in Supreme Court history since Dred Scott,” adding that it “turned over the keys to Congress and to our government to the wealthy and well-connected.”
During the Space, Ackman said he chose to back Phillips because he’s a “very successful entrepreneur” who’s “super charismatic, patriotic.” (Phillips is a co-owner of Talenti Gelato.) He also said he had Phillips speak last week at his firm, Pershing Square, adding that he’d be willing to “do business” with Phillips.
Before Ackman, Phillips started a three-minute soliloquy about his upbringing, relating it to MLK, before saying that slavery has “long legs, long tails” to this day and that the U.S. “should acknowledge the injustice and horrors of slavery.”
Later on in the discussion between Phillips and the billionaire who has committed $1 million to a super PAC boosting his candidacy, Phillips bragged that he is one of few lawmakers who refuse money from corporate political action committees, crediting this to his “entrepreneurial spirit.”
“That means nobody can buy me. Nobody can influence me. I will always make the right decision and I won’t make that decision until I hear from all perspectives on the issue,” he said. “I’m the only one that takes no PAC money of any kind… I don’t take any lobbyist money.”
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