The long weekend celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr is here — a great time to reflect on what exactly his vision was and whether we are living up to it. While there is a lot of debate on where MLK would stand today and who gets to claim him, most conservative Americans embrace his dream of healing division, forgiving past wrongs, erasing discriminatory laws and customs, and trying to move forward as one united people.

But many of us now worry his dream is being replaced by another — one that seeks to tear down and divide, one that appears more like retribution than forgiveness. This new twisted vision gets called many things — wokeness, Critical Race Theory, DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), racial quotas, affirmative action. But all of them focus on using institutional power to fix gaps in racial outcomes at the finish line rather than at the starting line.

Government-run schools in majority black areas were given poor funding and sidelined in comparison with ones in white areas, so fixing this imbalance is just and necessary. Certain programs delivering grants, funding, or other benefits discriminated against people based on race, so restitution should be paid, and frequently has been.

This is all basic justice and fairness. It seems like exactly what the nation agreed to when we elevated Martin Luther King Jr to the status of a new founding father, one who brought the original ideas of equality and freedom to their logical conclusion. But sadly, things did not stop at eliminating racism in institutions and making restitution to living victims. Virtually everywhere you turn, a new paradigm has taken over. And it is not MLK’s dream.

The movement for DEI was already picking up steam, but after the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, it has completely saturated society. The word “equity,” meaning equality of outcomes, has largely replaced “equality,” as in equality of opportunity and equality under the law — a seismic shift in two small letters.

Consider this one anecdote from Bloomberg News. Activists were able to secure promises to focus on hiring “equity” from the nation’s largest corporations in the wake of the BLM protests (and riots). And Bloomberg was shocked to the degree this was carried out.

White people likely make up around 80% of college-educated adults in the United States and at least 70% of adult workers in general. And the major companies in the nation essentially placed a race-based hiring freeze on all of them (rich, poor, disabled, foreign-born, gay, straight). Only 6% of the 323,000 positions were filled with white people. And with a serious labor shortage, it’s likely these 6% were only hired when there was not a suitable minority candidate available.

This should be a major scandal leading to countless lawsuits. But society has largely accepted that these are the rules of the game now. Any white person who complains about it is just proof that there is “more work to be done.”

Image by Bloomberg News based on 2021 US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data.

Similar movements have happened in areas like health care, where “health equity” is all the rage. This new push calls for devoting resources to specific demographics to correct disparities in outcomes. During COVID, for example, Atrium Health created programs specifically targeted to caring for black and Hispanic residents in the Charlotte area.

According to their statement, it was started with a “goal to acknowledge the history of health injustice in communities of color… Atrium Health is coordinating on-site vaccination events in partnership with local organizations reaching African American and Hispanic communities to ensure equity in access to safe, effective and FDA- approved COVID-19 vaccines.”

I responded to the announcement, asking if health equity ever leads to programs to assist white residents on conditions where they are overrepresented, like suicide and opioid overdose. I didn’t hear back but would hate to think that our health-care system is moving to a place where the deadly conditions of some are ignored, and those of others receive additional resources, all to achieve cosmic justice and to balance out a historical suffering scorecard.

This instinct is not just present in big institutions like major corporations or hospital systems. It can be seen all the way down to mom-and-pop small businesses and local government programs. Where I live in Orange County, I constantly see these likely well-intentioned but misguided efforts.

The local “non-violent” martial arts dojo, for example, has “sliding scale dues” that appear to be based on race and gender, saying, “Given generational racism and subsequent wealth disparities by race-ethnicity, and given outstanding gender inequalities in pay and access to resources, Open Sky offers sliding scale membership dues.”

They add, “We invite those for whom this support of BLM or anti-oppression goals are unpalatable to find another martial arts school at which to train.”

A local daycare had a similar note on “sliding scale dues.” The schools are full of the same language. The tax-funded Orange County Arts Commission is offering free residencies at their Eno Mill art studios (plus $500 stipends and much more) to “artists of color,” a new phrase roughly translating to “everybody but white people.”

These were all just examples I noticed recently and in my own town (and only the places I don’t particularly care about being banned from). Once you know what words to look for (sliding-scale dues, DEI, people of color, equity, historically marginalized), you notice just how saturated our society has become with this divisive, unjust paradigm.

We should all have equality under the law, without discrimination based on our skin color. That is the legacy of Martin Luther King, and it’s a very conservative and American one. But this new twisted dream, where all institutions conspire to deprive one particular group of jobs, health care resources, even art-studio space, is not one that will lead to a harmonious united nation. And it’s a vision we should fight now before it becomes too embedded to easily reverse.

It’s very understandable that some want to use the power of major institutions, including government, to undo the evils of the past. These evils were very real and reverberate strongly today. But a quick look at history should make clear that when the powerful distribute resources and opportunities by race, even with the most noble intentions, it leads to disaster. Because as the good reverend said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Like King, who deserves all the honor we give him in the coming days, many of us just want to live in a country where our children are given the same opportunities as everyone else.