July 26, 2007
Death of the Civil Rights Movement?
Several people emailed us last spring when Eddie Glaude and Ronald Sullivan wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post arguing that the civil rights movement was moribund:
The civil rights old guard, represented by the board, seems stuck in a 1960s mind-set that expects a particular form of response from black America -- pushing for government action to remedy the effects of discrimination. This type of response was popular, successful and necessary during the civil rights movement and, in some cases, remains a powerful form of redress.
The successes and failures of the civil rights movement, however, fundamentally changed the country's racial landscape. Of course racial discrimination remains. But we have entered what has been called a post-civil-rights age that requires an array of strategies to address the complex problems many African Americans face. . .
Indeed, many current civil rights leaders fetishize the form of dissent most associated with the civil rights movement. They confuse principle with tactics. They behave as though marching and petitioning the government for redress of grievances is the only principled response to the maldistribution of burdens and benefits in our democracy. And they bristle at other forms of dissent, tactics designed to reach the shared goal of equality under law for all Americans. For many, it is either the old way or no way at all. . .
Whether or not you agree with their recommendations, it's hard to disagree with their analysis that the big civil rights groups are stuck in the grievance-based politics of the past.
A year ago NPR's Juan Williams issued a scathing polemic about the politics of victimhood in the form of a defense of the famous Bill Cosby speech to the NAACP:
Critics often charge Bill Cosby, in his Brown anniversary speech, with beating up on an easy mark: poor black people. Wrong. The critics are the ones who veer off target. Cosby repeatedly aimed his fire at the leaders of today's popular black culture, which is often not just created by black artists, but marketed and managed by black executives. He was talking about current black political leaders and, most of all, about the civil rights leaders who time and time again send the wrong message to poor black people desperately in need of direction as they try to find their way in a society where being black and poor remains a unique burden to bear.
Today, columnist Cynthia Tucker today lays out a critique of the civil rights movement that hits the same notes.
The Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, decades older than the SCLC, are also respected more for their traditions than their recent accomplishments. None of them has made a graceful transition to the 21st century.
The organizations were founded to secure basic rights for black Americans - including the vote, equal educational opportunities and equal employment opportunities. They campaigned to ensure that black Americans were no longer forced to the back of the bus or the end of the line. It is a testimony to the success of the civil rights movement, in which those organizations played a prominent role, that much of that agenda has been accomplished. . .
There are certainly many black Americans who could use help, but their troubles are not a straightforward matter of racial injustice. A huge coterie of black men is slowly disappearing into a permanent underclass, where they are not employed or employable, married or marriageable.
All of the authors argue that the civil rights establishment is outmoded. But is the argument for a post-civil rights movement -- or also a post-race-based politics? Glaude and Sullivan write:
[T]the condition of many black children, from inadequate health care to poor education, begs for new and creative approaches to problem-solving. Why can't the NAACP commit some of its resources, beyond lobbying the government, to addressing the social and moral crisis faced by African American children?
Does it any longer make sense to have policies and politics aimed specifically at people of color, African Americans, or black children -- or should we instead aim to articulate and fight for a non-racial vision of the future? This was the strategy of Marian Wright Edelman when she started Children's Defense Fund -- what can we conclude about the success of her work? What lessons can a new politics draw from Harlem Children's Zone, which we argue in Break Through is a model for dealing with concentrated poverty?
Whatever the answers are to these questions, it's inspiring to see public intellectuals like Glaude, Sullivan, Tucker, and Williams asking the tough questions, openly and publicly.
The impetus for the Cynthia Tucker column was the tragic and terrifying execution of the editor of the Oakland Post, Chauncey Bailey, allegedly by men associated with Your Black Muslim Bakery in Oakland, whose finances he was investigating. The irony here is that Cosby actually praised a certain kind of militarism in his NAACP speech for supposedly improving public safety:
We've got to hit the streets, ladies and gentlemen. I'm winding up, now -- no more applause. I'm saying, look at the Black Muslims. There are Black Muslims standing on the street corners and they say so forth and so on, and we're laughing at them because they have bean pies and all that, but you don't read, "Black Muslim gunned down while chastising drug dealer." You don't read that. They don't shoot down Black Muslims. You understand me. Muslims tell you to get out of the neighborhood. When you want to clear your neighborhood out, first thing you do is go get the Black Muslims, bean pies and all. And your neighborhood is then clear. The police can't do it.
As far as I know, Cosby hasn't said anything about the Oakland Post shooting.