Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?

A few months ago, I read another of Thomas Sowell's many books, this one published in the year I was born, 1984. As I'm sure you've figured out by now, I hold Mr. Sowell in very high regard. He is intellectually honest and, as an African-American, he's not shy to report the facts when it comes to race-related issues. Many of his books, if written by a Caucasian-American, may have never been published, or if they were, created wide-spread controversy and indignation. Not that what he writes about hasn't created indignation, it has, but because he's black, he's simply written off as an "Uncle Tom". The book I read is titled Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?, and is "a brutally frank, perceptive and important contribution to the national debate over the means to achieve equality and social justice for minorities and women." In this book, Mr. Sowell "has forced civil rights advocates to take a hard look at what has, and has not, been accomplished in the three decades since the struggle for racial equality began."

As is my style, I would like to share with you just a few of the richest parts of one of Thomas Sowell's best books:

"Civil rights are among the most honored achievements of Western civilization. In the United States, civil rights for all people has been a goal for which an uphill fight has been waged, literally for centuries, at great human cost—including the lives of many who dared to stand up for what was right, even when it would have been far more expedient to look the other way. The Supreme Court decision against racial segregation in May 1954 was a landmark victory over some of the ugliest forces buried in American history. Yet the more honored and stirring any concept is, the more certain it is to be misused for the benefit of special interest. The Bible was used to justify slavery. 'Civil Rights' has come to mean many very different things—including some meanings that would be both foreign and repugnant to many of those whose struggles and sacrifices made civil rights possible."

The Civil Rights Vision
"Brown v. Board of Education may have been intended to close the door on an ugly chapter in American history going back to slavery and including both petty and gross bigotry, blatant discrimination, and violence and terror extending all the way to brutal and sadistic lynching. Yet it also opened a door to political, constitutional, and human crises. It was not simply a decision but the beginning of a revolution that has not yet run its course, but which has already shown the classic symptoms of a revolution taking a very different path from that envisioned by the who set it in motion."

From Equal Opportunity to "Affirmative Action"
"Those who carry the civil rights vision to its ultimate conclusion see no great difference between promoting equality of opportunity and equality of results. If there are not equal results among groups presumed to have equal genetic potential, then some inequality of opportunity must have intervened somewhere, and the question of precisely where is less important than the remedy of restoring the less fortunate to their just position. The fatal flaw in this kind of thinking is that there are many reasons, besides genes and discrimination, why groups differ in their economic performances and rewards. Groups differ by large amounts demographically, culturally, and geographically—and all of these differences have profound effects on incomes and occupations."

From School Desegregation to Busing
"The actual history of racial and ethnic education in the United States has played remarkably little role in the sweeping theories and pronouncements behind court-ordered busing—except in the special case of blacks, where one-group schools were only part of a much larger and complex system of oppression under Jim Crow laws. Yet, for purposes of busing orders, 'minority' children include Hispanics and Asians—even though the latter often out-perform the white children who are depicted as an urgent necessity for their education. Yet, in another sense, inclusion of the Asians is perfectly consistent. Under the assumptions of the civil rights vision, Asians as non-whites should not be doing as well in school as they do, just as they should not be doing as well as they do in the job market. The question, then, is whether assumptions are to be accepted for their plausibility and their conformity to larger social vision, or whether even the most plausible and satisfying assumptions must nevertheless be forces to confront actual facts."

The Special Case of Blacks
"Why should discussion of positive achievements by blacks ever be a source of embarrassment, much less resentment, on the part of black leaders? Because many of these positive achievements occurred in ways that completely undermine the civil rights vision. If crime is a product of poverty and discrimination as they say endlessly, why was there so much less of it when poverty and discrimination were much worse than today? If massive programs are the only hope to reduce violence in the ghetto, why was there so much less violence long before anyone ever thought of these programs? Perhaps more to the point, have the philosophies and policies so much supported by black leaders contributed to the decline in community and personal standards, and in family responsibility, so painfully visible today? For many, it may be easier to ignore past achievements than to face their implications for current issues."

The Special Case of Women
"The central '59 percent' cliché [(the non sequitur, that a woman is paid just 59 percent of what a man receives for doing the same work, that is derived from the statistic that says the median annual income of women has generally fluctuated at a level just under three-fifths of that of men)] would require us to believe that employers could survive in a competitive market, paying nearly 70 percent more for given labor than they have to, whenever that labor is male. Even if employers were that needlessly generous to men, or so consumed by ideology, waste of this magnitude would be economically fatal to those businessmen who happened to have more men on the payroll than their competitors. Far smaller differences in cost have sent innumerable businesses into bankruptcies. As in so many other areas, the civil rights vision is so preoccupied with individual intentions that it ignores systemic effects."

Rhetoric or Reality?
"The battle for civil rights was fought and won—at great cost—many years ago. Like any fundamental human achievement, these rights cannot be taken for granted and must be safeguarded. But civil rights are not protected or enhanced by the growing practice of calling every issue raised by 'spokesmen' for minority, female, elderly, or other groups, 'civil rights' issues. The right to vote is a civil right. The right to win is not. Equal treatment does not mean equal results. Everything desirable is not a civil right. Nor are the institutions or methods that produced civil rights likely to produce all the other things required to advance minorities, women, or others."

The Degeneration of Racial Controversy
"One of the many painful contrasts between that era [Brown v. Board of Education] and today is that evidence is increasingly evaded by those who speak in the name of civil rights. Whether it is low test scores or high crime rates, the first order of business is to dismiss the evidence and discredit those who bring it. Even good news—successful minority schools or the rise of a black middle class—is denounced when it does not fit the preconceived vision. Unvarnished facts are today more likely to arouse suspicion and hostility than any joyous anticipation of more ammunition for the good fight."