Civil Rights-Do We Need an New Paradigm?

From time to time (all too often in this writer's opinion) the President makes a fatuous call for a national conversation on race. Everyone, most of all the President, knows that it's fatuous because anyone who doesn't accept the Civil Rights vision (which I will explain more fully below) would not dare utter a single career/life destroying word. I except myself from the foregoing as I am self-employed; i.e. my employer allows me great leeway in the opinions I express.  Shout out: there's no conversation when the accepted narrative is prescribed and those departing from it are subject to literal or metaphorical stoning. 

Since the Civil Rights narrative has, in part only, led to the Trump fascist narrative, I think it's a good time to look at it and say what it is.  The Trump narrative is, I think, correctly characterized by Jeffrey Tucker as aggregation of resentment about race, class, sex, religion and the economy. Frankly, I think the Civil Rights vision is so ingrained in Americans today that people couldn't even say what it is. They speak through the paradigm without knowing it is one. In short, they assume the Civil Rights vision is the way the world works.  

So what is the Civil Rights vision?  The term was coined by Thomas Sowell in his 1984 book, Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?. I am going to encourage you to read this post at least a couple of times and to get his book and read it for yourself.  I had to read Sowell's book a couple of times myself before I grasped the ideas he was espousing.  His ideas are never discussed today; i.e. they are so unfamiliar to our eyes and ears, the ideas are hard to grasp.

Sowell begins by noting that "the civil rights revolution began by emphasizing precisely what was unique about the history of black Americans -- slavery, Jim Crow laws and some of the most virulent racism ever seen."  The Civil Rights laws were designed to address the specific historical experience of black Americans, but the specific principles created to address a specific situation for a unique people have been used to create general principles such that now some "70% of the population is entitled to preferential treatment under 'affirmative action.'"  (Page 8).

Sowell's intention in his book was to ask (i) whether it is correct to use specific principles created to address the unique experiences of black Americans to address other concerns; and (ii) what are the risks to black Americans and to America as a whole of continuing to rely upon the Civil Rights narrative.

According to Sowell the central premises of the civil rights vision are:

  • "that statistical disparities in incomes, occupations, education, etc, represent moral inequities, and are caused by 'society;'"
  • "that [some people's] belief in innate inferiority explains policies and practices of differential treatment, whether expressed in overt hostility or in institutional policies or individual decisions;" and
  • "that political activity is the key to improving the lives of those...disadvantaged."

I want to dwell on this vision as this is the central thesis that Sowell is tackling. "If the causes of intergroup differences can be dichotomized into discrimination and innate ability, then non-racists and non-sexists must expect equal results from non-discrimination. Conversely, the persistence of highly disparate results must indicate that discrimination continues to be pervasive...."

Sowell immediately challenges the proposition that different outcomes are caused by "society" (whatever that might be)  by citing pronounced patterns within identifiable groups that are not caused by discrimination.  By way of example, the choice of television programs watched, the age that people marry, or opinions expressed to poll takers show "pronounced patterns that differ from group to group--not a random distribution."

Here are some important conclusions Sowell notes:

  • People in identifiable groups can share commonalities.
  • These commonalities among the group members are not caused by third parties.

By way of example, fully half of Mexican American wives were married in their teens while only 10 percent of Japanese American wives were married that young. (Page 10).  Sowell follows this with a series of examples of peoples from various ethnic groups behaving similarly to others from the same group, but differently from others from different groups. "Statistical disparities extend into every aspect of human life. In major league baseball, for example, black players have hit home runs with significantly greater frequency than white players (in proportion to their respective times at bat) and with nearly twice the frequency of Latin players."

Today commonplace statistical disparities are used as evidence of discrimination.  Differences alone are evidence of discrimination. See, for example, the Target case settled with the EEOC for $2.8 million in which the EEOC reported "Target agreed to monitor the assessments it uses for exempt-level professional positions for adverse impact based upon race, ethnicity and gender." In short, Target paid a financial penalty, not because it engaged in any intentionally discriminatory hiring practices, but because its practices could result in employment of persons in certain positions not in accordance with their numbers in the population. Sowell's point is that statistical disparities between groups are to be expected; therefore, are not in and of themselves properly used as evidence of discrimination.

Sowell repudiates the idea that differences between groups are mere stereotypes that require changing the "public's perceptions' or raising the public's 'consciousness....[since] the reality of group patterns that transcend any given society cannot be denied." Instead, "differences result from a wide range of demographic, historical, geographical, cultural and other factors at work." (Page 92). As an aside, I will note that, according to Duarte, J.L., et al., social scientists since the 1930s decried the inaccuracy of social stereotypes, but when stereotypes were finally studied by social scientists, stereotypes were often found to be accurate.  My point in making this aside is to show that Sowell's use of group characteristics to account for group differences in outcome was not an acceptable means of conducting social science in the 1980s; i.e. in 1984 his ideas would have been seen, again according to Duarte, J.L. et al., as "nasty and inaccurate."

Because the civil rights vision sees statistical disparities, not as a result of a myriad of differences, but as a result of the "bad" actions of social institutions, political activity has become crucial to achieving the end of equality. Sowell is wary about polarization along ethnic lines as a result of the "incessant reiteration of the themes of pervasive discrimination, hypocritical standards, and shadowy but malign enemies relentlessly opposing...progress." (Page 86).  He notes, it's easy to polarize people and difficult to depolarize people. "Fomenting intergroup hostility has likewise raised many other obscure figures to power in many other countries, from 'redneck' politicians in the American South to Idi Amin in Uganda and-the classic example--Adolf Hitler." (Page 23)

Sowell is quite conscious of the risk of schism in America along ethnic lines if the civil rights vision continues to be the only lens of viewing relations between disparate groups in America. "Risks must be taken for genuine civil rights. But the kinds of internal struggles that have torn other multi-ethnic societies apart must be for something more than the continuing viability of organizations or the continued employment of their lawyers.  The dangers of the present course are both insidious and acute....The spread of hate organizations may be a symptom of much more unorganized resentment among people who are still not yet prepared to join fascistic or messianic movements. The dangers of continually adding to those resentments are all the greater the more heedlessly preferential doctrines are pushed in the courts, in federal bureaucracy and by activists."

That's where we are today. Racism is assumed to account for a myriad of differences in employment, health, living arrangements, etc. and white people are openly labeled racists in order to account for these differences.  See, for example, White Men Must Be Stopped, The Scientific Way to Train White People Not to be Racist, Ten Ways White People are More Racist Than They Realize.  I could go on, but I am sure you get the picture. A lot of Trump followers are sick and tired of the narrative that thoughts or beliefs that they either do not hold and/or have not expressed are responsible for the poor life conditions of numerous other people.  They are glad to have a leader repudiate that narrative on their behalf. The leader that Sowell warned of in 1984 if the civil rights vision became the only allowable narrative has now emerged in Donald Trump.

Me? I think it's time to re-read Thomas Sowell.  He had some important things to tell us about people being different.  We can acknowledge that black Americans were subjected to the unspeakable horror of slavery, that Jim Crow laws were wrong, that black Americans were denied the right to vote, and that racists still live and act today, all without accepting that the best vision or even a correct vision for our future is one of equality of outcome in all areas of life for all people -- culture, food, education, income, job preference, family size, health, housing or any other indicator you care to mention.  

As Sowell knew and Walter Williams reminds of in this article, we are quite different people for a myriad of reasons. Let's acknowledge that. Let's stop looking for "shadowy, malign enemies" to lay blame for all the ills that befall people. It's time to rein in the self-created mandate of the EEOC that employers must employ all people in proportion to their numbers in the population. Let's allow a broader narrative to emerge -- a narrative that acknowledges racism may be present, but that other influences may be present as well. If we are ever going to have that national conversation, then the allowable opinions expressed must be more than those contained within the civil rights narrative.

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