I have been thinking about civil rights a lot lately, and how far we have come as a country from the dark days of Jim Crow and the likes of Bull Connor. I look around and there are positive signs of progress and people of conscience among us who no doubt will make whatever battles we face in the future easier to win.
I had this in my mind while I read the following article by Richard Thompson-Ford in the Boston Globe:
"America's racial problems are persistent and vexing, and since the 1960s, the nation has used a powerful weapon to fix them: the ideas developed during the civil rights movement. Courts and government agencies enforce legal prohibitions against discrimination; private businesses and universities fashion their own diversity policies based on civil-rights principles. Even private individuals think about race relations in civil-rights terms: we aspire to the ideal of "colorblindness," and condemn the evils of discrimination and bias.
For a long time this way of thinking made perfect sense. In the past, the biggest impediment to racial justice was overt discrimination, inspired by a widespread belief that blacks were inferior to whites. And in fighting this kind of outright prejudice, civil rights have been an astonishing success. Race discrimination in restaurants, theaters, and hotels was quickly and thoroughly eliminated by the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Discrimination in employment - while still a problem - has been dramatically reduced and is widely and roundly condemned. Public figures who make overtly bigoted statements typically suffer widespread contempt and often lose their jobs. As a result, each successive generation is less bigoted than the preceding one. Polls suggest that racial animus today is at an all-time low, and Barack Obama's election demonstrates that race is no longer the impediment it was in the recent past.
But in dealing with the worst racial problems we now face, the civil rights approach is no longer the right tool for the job. Today's most serious racial injustices aren't caused by
bias and bigotry; instead they stem from racial segregation and the many disadvantages that follow from living in isolated, economically depressed, and crime-ridden neighborhoods. These problems are a legacy of past racism, but not, by and large, the result of ongoing discrimination. Civil rights litigation and activism have hardly made a dent in these formidable obstacles. It's tempting to believe that we just need more of the same - that we've only been too timid in enforcing civil rights laws or too conservative in interpreting them. But the real problem is inherent in the civil rights approach itself: faced with racial inequities that are not caused by discrimination, civil rights law is impotent and civil rights activism too often a distraction from the real work we need to do.
To say discrimination is not the cause of our worst racial problem is not to deny that racism is still a serious problem. Even today, too many people distrust or belittle others based on casual stereotypes; racial tensions continue to trouble social interactions in schools and workplaces, and the racial hatred and contempt that underlay the Jim Crow system is far from gone. Civil rights are an important response to these problems"
The rest of the article can be found here.
I liked what Thompson-Ford was writing here; not because I agree with everything he said, (I disagree, for instance, that "racial animus is at an all time low". Polls say it is for the very reasons the author cited: it's not cool to be a racist these days. So who is going to tell a pollster how he really feels about race?) but because his article was about solutions and ways to try and attack whatever problems we have dealing with race in A-merry-ca.
It's certainly worth discussing. At least we can learn from each other.