Friday, November 07, 2008

Do We Still Need Civil Rights After Obama?

Working for the LCCR this summer as it sought to beat back Ward Connelly's efforts to eliminate affirmative action in Colorado, one of the primary arguments we had to respond to was the claim that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (and later, Sarah Palin) have proven that affirmative action is not necessary. Abigail Thernstrom, a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, trained her fire more broadly, asking caustically if civil rights advocates are "still going to whine endlessly about racism in America" if Obama was elected. Since Obama's election, this chorus has grown even louder. RedState, for example, congratulated Barack Obama on his victory by saying "thirty years came quickly", referring to the time frame within which Justice Sandra Day O'Connor stated that she expected affirmative action would no longer be necessary. And liberal commentators have made similar statements, albeit in more worried tones: that Obama's election would wrongly signal White citizens that the problem of racism is essentially over.

Look. Barack Obama's election was an immensely important event, and its symbolic value to the cause of racial justice cannot be overstated. That being said, in terms of its direct impact to the cause of racial equity, it is in fact mostly symbolic. All Barack Obama has objectively proven is that an incredibly talented Black man can rise to an elite position in extremely favorable conditions (as The Onion memorably put it: "Nation Finally Shitty Enough To Make Social Progress"). One very capable person doing very well is good news, but it doesn't make any systematic impact or really tell us anything about the strength of institutional factors. Affirmative action is targeted at the Black community writ large -- most of whom are not Barack Obama's. But you shouldn't have to be a Barack Obama for civil rights to care about you.

The focus on Obama's victory helps to maintain one of the more pernicious elements of the "politics of respectability" model of civil rights reform. During the civil rights struggle, Black leaders were very careful to present only their most cherubic, idealized face. Their most innocent children, their most clearly qualified applicants, their most gifted (and fair-minded) leaders. It would be far more difficult for the wardens of White supremacy to argue that these people should be excluded from the fruits of the American dream. By contrast, civil rights organizations were far more hesitant to stand up for, say, the Black poor (whose mannerisms might be cited as justification for racist measures), or Black criminals who -- regardless of what acts they might have committed -- still objectively ought to enjoy the same protections granted to White defendants. In this way, the measuring stick by which racial equality was measured was when a Black standout was given full opportunity to show the extent of her genius.

Most Black people, like most Whites, Asians, and Latinos, are not perfect. They are regular, flawed folks. And when "success" in civil rights is limited to elite persons getting their just deserts, we do serious violence to what racial equality should actually mean. Much of the focus on affirmative action is an upshot of the politics of respectability -- it asks what awards should be given to very talented Black men and women. I think that's important, but the totality of racial equality isn't encompassed by the question of whether a given Black student should be going to Harvard versus Tufts. Barack Obama's election may tell us important information about the prospects of the "talented tenth" (or hundredth, or thousandth). But true commitment to racial egalitarianism means looking beyond that, to the situation of the normal ninetieth. That includes the vast majority of college students, who are not elite either, but it is also extends to the many people who aren't going to college at all. Affirmative action still has a role to play in the post-Obama era, but the focus on it as the primary battleground over civil rights obscures more than it illuminates.

There is an old saw in feminist circles stating that "the issue now is not to get a female Einstein hired as an assistant professor at a third-rate university. The issue now is to have a female schlub receive the same opportunities as a male schlub." The same thing applies in the context of race. We have made it so that there are avenues for the very best and brightest people of color can spread their wings and succeed. And that's not nothing. But neither is it the end of civil rights. For everyday Black folk, Barack Obama's election does not signal any meaningful change in the type of opportunities they are likely to see or the type of treatment they are likely to receive. Waving their lives away, because of what a very tiny and very separate stratum of Black people now know that they can achieve, is not legitimate practice for those of us truly committed to dismantling racial hierarchy.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

What an amazing period in American politics. I personally didn’t vote for Obama but am truly inspired by the positivity and global reaction resulting from his election, at least so far. His energy is addicting and his demeanor inspiring. I think Rahm Emanuel will do a phenomenal job as Obama’s chief of staffs. He’s hard nosed, stubborn, and won’t take “no” for an answer.

Obama’s story is truly American. I’d wish to dive into Obama’s mind and discover his motives and internal dialog. To go through a year of campaigning is very difficult, but to go through a year of campaigning and deliver a speech like he did that is truly inspirational. I’m excited about to see how he really attacks global warming and the energy crisis.

What’s also fascinating is looking at the dynamic of who voted, how they voted, and what drove them to vote. Obama’s campaign created a wave of energy that grew bigger and bigger as his campaign moved forward, engulfing (in a good way) each supporter and supercharging them. How did they do this? It all started with a vision. Obama’s vision, planted deep within his mind, began to take root almost 2 years ago today. The power of his vision can teach every American citizen about how to accomplish goals using the powers of visualization and intention.

I looked into this vision questing further and found that many super-successful people have been using vision boards to help focus their mind and accomplish their dreams. A vision board is a collage of images pasted on a board that represent your desired outcomes, your goals, and dreams. By studying your vision board, your brain gains clarity on what is important to your success, the things you MUST accomplish. I found a site www.TheVisionBoardKit.com that allows you to download a free 8-step power plan to creating vision boards. I’d highlight recommend downloading it.

David Schraub said...

I have to say, that's one of the more impressive spam comments I've seen. I'm actually going to keep it up, just for the sheer effort at making it seem like a spontaneous, topical, relevant comment.

Good work.

PG said...

I was going to ask your opinion on Kahlenberg's piece on affirmative action. With Ward Connerley determined to run these initiatives in every state, I think he's probably right that Obama should orient himself toward the problem of economic disparity, which correlates strongly with race but is a much more unifying basis for ensuring opportunity.

I do wish he had pointed out the fundamental racism behind the Texas "top 10%" plan as a way to ensure racial diversity at UT: it is premised on the continuation of Texas's highly racially segregated school system. (Because I lived in a unitary school district where we had only one high school, my school was racially integrated, but we were under court supervision until after my graduation.) Given the Seattle Schools decision, I suppose racially segregated schools aren't going anywhere soon, but it still annoys me that people promote top 10% plans without acknowledging that they're depending on segregation at the high school level in order to have diversity at the college level.

ansel said...

Thanks for this post, David. Most lefty blogs I've read have been exclaiming "Racism is actually NOT over, everyone" but you really broke it down.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Thanks for saying this. I have been spreading the message around the web myself! Great essay. A lot of Democrats do not even want to think about the issues you raise, but they are important.

http://dissentingjustice.blogspot.com/2008/10/2008-is-not-1964-why-liberals-and.html