I first encountered the civil rights movement in 1960 when racial inequality was ubiquitous, much of it state imposed. Glaring gaps existed in education resulting from segregation and unequal funding. Blacks faced huge obstacles in employment and obtaining decent housing. Millions of southern blacks could not vote. Racist police practices were rampant and the mass media, to use an old expression, was lily white. And this catalogue of injustices was only the beginning.
Fast forward to 2013. It is no exaggeration to say that the entire civil rights legislative agenda is now law, black and white voting rates are nearly identical while black economic progress is everywhere visible. Affirmative action is nearly sacrosanct while blacks regularly star on TV and in movies. Meanwhile, billions have been spent to level inequalities. One triumph sums it all up: President Barrack Obama.
So, what does today’s civil rights agenda look like? Have its leaders announced, “Mission accomplished, time to go home and pursue other aims”? Hardly. Rather, more like the Energizer Bunny, it keeps on going and going but here’s the troubling part: as was true from day one, everything is directed at prodding government as if Washington and the states could deliver messianic results. One can only be reminded of the religious faithful who pray for divine intervention and when it fails to deliver, they pray even harder. Civil rights laws and all the billions for multiple programs aside, race-related inequalities still abound in education, health, incarceration levels, welfare dependency, and employment. Yes, thanks to civil rights activists blacks now politically dominate many cities, but what has this political success brought? Answer: Detroit, East St. Louis, Gary, IN and other troubled cities verging on bankruptcy.
But worse than a half-finished job is how the civil rights movement has deteriorated into irrelevancy, if not foolishness. What began as a noble cause secure in the high moral ground now seems adrift lurching from one sugar high to the next. As Shelby Steele put it in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Today’s black leadership pretty much lives off the fumes of moral authority that linger from its glory days in the 1950s and ’60s.”
A few conspicuous examples must suffice. There’s Attorney General Holder’s speech (and here) to the NAACP calling for banning stand your ground laws, a measure of scant relevance to the Zimmerman trial and of minimal significance for African Americans; conceivably, stand your ground laws would benefit law-abiding blacks in crime-ridden neighborhoods. Then there’s the recent legislative effort to criminalize racial profiling, a constitutional over-reach andan enforcement nightmare with a miniscule chance of congressional passage. And let’s not forget the endless quest to stamp out white racism, now called “micro-aggression” no matter how imperceptible or trifling (see here).
Less prominent are sundry outrages over racial slurs as if these were calls for lynching blacks. Are Paula Dean’s past racist utterances a threat to anything or anyone? What about the uproar over Hillsdale College president Larry Arnn’s saying “dark ones” when challenging Washington’s intrusion into his college’s affairs? When Philadelphia Eagles wide-receiver Riley Cooper was caught saying the “N” word to a security guard; it made the CBS news and Cooper had to profusely apologize and then undergo counseling. Then there’s Elliot Bronstein, head of Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights who suggested that city residents eschew using the term “brown bag” due to its racial overtones (blacks sometimes used “brown bag” for its color to distinguish skin tones among fellow blacks). Better to use “sack lunch.” And on and on and on.
We are not justifying offensive language. Rather, it is the transformation of mole hills into mountains, replacing outrage over serious injustices, e.g., unequal funding of public schools, with near trivial events, e.g., drunks privately saying the “N” word, with minimal negative impact on African Americans. How in the world is a white uttering “brown bag” a threat to African Americans?
What explains this trivialization at the expense of far more pressing matters such as sky-high unemployment among young black men? Let me offer two explanations. The first involves what might be called the March of Dimes problem — what happens when a well-funded, flourishing organization fulfills its mission and must refocus its efforts? To wit, the March of Dimes was founded in 1938 to fight polio. But in the 1950’s, polio virtually vanished thanks to vaccination. Its mission then shifted to arthritis, virus diseases, and especially birth defects and infant mortality and it has thrived since.
Clearly, civil rights leaders are facing a similar predicament: for decades the NAACP, CORE, the Urban League among others successfully pressured government to spend billions and enact anti-discrimination laws. Now, with these laws on the books and little likelihood of even more spending, what’s next?
Like the March of Dimes, the civil rights establishment must shift gears. Not exactly rocket science. Why not micro-loans for inner-city entrepreneurs together with experienced business people as mentors? Or teach unemployed youngsters how to dress for success in job interviews. All of these (and many more) efforts will far outshine yet one more ragtag fleeting “No Peace No Justice” march.
The second explanation concerns the free rider problem. Basically, the benefits of civil rights triumphs are distributed regardless of support for any organization waging the battle. So, while the NAACP Legal Defense Fund helped to finance lawsuits ending school segregation, recipient benefits did not depend on paying dues. This is unlike most lobbyist groups where at least some benefits are reserved for dues-paying members.
Absent a steady source of ample income, civil rights groups must forever mobilize supporters via a diet of high-profile TV-friendly issues. Think Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson competing for the spotlight via outrageous statements, e.g., Florida is guilty of apartheid, or boisterous protests. The Zimmerman trial was a godsend to reawaken the apathetic and perhaps ramp up donations, though only briefly. Meanwhile, elected black officials (and candidates) can polish their racial bona fides by expressing their horror over the Zimmerman verdict. What happens when the Zimmerman trial fades into history? Is progress possible if exclusively driven by short-lived outrage?
There is nothing “anti-civil rights” about this analysis. The March of Dimes and Free Rider problems affect all organizations, liberal or conservative. And manufacturing a “crisis” to solicit funds is widespread, regardless of ideology. Meanwhile, hundreds of advocacy groups likewise fret more about appearing on CNN’s Anderson Cooper versus doing something helpful for group members.
Unfortunately, the stakes are too high to just acknowledge the problem. Do we really need yet one more televised rally to express “indignation” while young blacks continue to kill each other in record numbers? In a nutshell, promoting greater government coercion to level racial disparities has become obsolete. Perhaps the Al Sharptons of the world should be forcibly retired, paid generous pensions, and put out to pasture. To again quote Shelby Steele, “If there is anything good to be drawn from the Zimmerman/Martin tragedy, it is only the further revelation of the corruption and irrelevance of today’s civil-rights leadership.” I admit that this is unwelcome commentary to civil rights advocates, but one can always hope that the long-promised national dialogue on race will address this irrelevance.