I can no longer hear Jesse Jackson's name without thinking of Norma Desmond, the great and ruined silent film star in "Sunset Boulevard" who, after killing her lover, descends a marble staircase as if for her next scene when in fact only the police await. Norma is a figure of chilling pathos because she insists on the past, laboring maniacally yet in vain to once more wield the sort of beauty that stops and starts the lives of others. But it was really the mystery that silent films imparted to beauty that had made her special. Now that the movies talk, she is not only older; she is a living anachronism.
When Jesse Jackson was arrested at Yale on Labor Day while marching in support of the university's striking workers, there was that same man-out-of-time quality, the same eerie insistence on the past that made Norma so chilling. "This is going to be for economic justice what Selma was for the right to vote," he said. Whatever the merits of the Yale strike, it is hard to imagine Mr. Jackson's arrest as commensurate with a march that culminated a three-century-long struggle for black enfranchisement. And it is also not easy to correlate diversity-ridden Yale with that early '60s constellation of southern states devoted to white supremacy. So what tremor of insecurity made him resort to such hyperbole?
Mr. Jackson's reputation has been in public free-fall since the news that this warrior against teen pregnancy fathered a child out of wedlock. Here we saw the man of many appetites finally undermine the man who was the reverend. The scandal hurt him not because it revealed something new but because it confirmed something we already believed. It ended rather than started debate over his character. He is now, himself, the object of black demonstrators angry that his corporate shakedowns in their name bring them nothing. Beyond all this, he has simply gotten older, but seemingly without wisdom. He seems injured by age rather than seasoned by it.
But Mr. Jackson is not alone in decline. In this 40th-anniversary year of the March on Washington, the entire civil rights establishment looks like an out-of-touch gerontocracy. Each summer the NAACP and Urban League conventions draw less attention, despite attempts to garner publicity with ever more venomous anti-Bush proclamations. In the intellectual debate black leaders are so predictable as to be an afterthought. Even the much-heralded black vote garners little more than symbolism from either party because it is the most consistent given in politics. But it is not incompetence that has shrunk this movement; it is obsolescence.
Today America has simply absorbed the point the civil rights movement was born to make. Even back in 1963 when Martin Luther King marched on Washington, much of America was quite prepared to agree with him. President Kennedy himself wanted to speak at the march but held back only for fear of stealing King's thunder. And there was no real counter-argument anywhere to the "I Have a Dream" speech. By the next year the greatest civil rights legislation in history was passed into law.
Mr. Jackson and the entire civil rights leadership are defined by the archetype of protest. And this is where their obsolescence begins. The great test of all protest is whether it is truly instructive to the society it challenges. Protest should enlighten society about those problems that its bigotries and ignorance keep it from facing -- problems it must grapple with for its health and survival. When protest is truly instructive, it gives society a much greater vision of itself. It doesn't just complain. It says this society is already great (or protest would be a waste of time), and this is how much greater it will be when the problem being protested is solved. Truly instructive protest is exciting and flattering for everyone because it holds out the possibility of personal and social growth. Protest leaders are charismatic because we sense within them new possibilities for ourselves. We often feel a private intimacy with truly instructive protest leaders. Millions have felt close to Gandhi, or the Mandela who came out of prison.
The March on Washington was a majestic American moment because it offered a vision of America that was at once critical, inspiring, and flattering. King's "I Have a Dream" speech is an American manifesto since, like the Declaration of Independence, it carries the flattery of high expectations: that America can achieve a colorblind society. This speech articulates the spirit of the civil rights legislation that followed it in the same way that the Declaration articulated the spirit of the Constitution.
So black protest taught America that it could not be a legitimate democracy unless race ceased to be a barrier to individual freedom. This was instructive protest of the highest sort because there was parity between its accusations against America and the wrongs which America could grudgingly acknowledge. It said America was a racist society and it clearly was. Thus King, out in front of a movement with a near-perfect equilibrium between what it charged and what was acknowledged, gave black protest an unquestioned integrity and authority. By the late '60s, protest represented a permanent vision of authenticity in black America. Not only did it carry glamour and authority, it also became the core of a new black identity.
The young Jesse Jackson was glamoured by protest just as the young Norma Desmond was given mystery by silence. Both were enhanced by a glory that came from context. But for the older Jesse, as for the older Norma, the context changed. America took King seriously and made great progress in the struggle to eliminate race as barrier to individual freedom. Today whites know that progress has been made, and this knowledge means something profound for blacks: that black protest has essentially ceased to be instructive. It tells no one anything they haven't already acknowledged. There is no longer parity between what blacks accuse and what whites acknowledge.
The breakdown of this parity is what makes today's black leadership so Norma Desmond-like. When Jesse proclaims a Yale labor dispute the equivalent of Selma, he is scratching the ground for a semblance of that old equilibrium between black accusation and white acknowledgement that would make his authority uncontestable -- and bring the longed-for comeback. King towered by standing atop a near perfect equilibrium; no black leader since has matched his stature because white America has made it impossible. By weakening race as a barrier to freedom, whites can no longer sincerely acknowledge wrongdoing commensurate with what black leaders accuse them of. Black protest has become bad theater -- shrill, unconvincing.
Why won't white America stop indulging overstated black protest? This question brings to mind another character from "Sunset Boulevard" -- Max, Norma's fawning manservant who, we learn, was also her former film director and first husband. Max labors mightily to fuel Norma's delusions of grandeur because he can only know his own past glory through them. Our institutions have grown accustomed to maintaining their moral authority in this post-civil rights society by responding to black protest. Decency for them is precisely a willingness to entertain even obviously exaggerated black protest. Without this opportunity institutions cannot know themselves to be free of racism. So, like Max, they collude with the black protester's delusion.
And this is where America herself gets into Norma Desmond territory. The great lie of today's black protest, and of the diversity mongers in our institutions, is that racism still holds blacks back. It does not. Black and white elites like the racism diagnosis because it politely -- and fruitfully for black elites -- assigns responsibility in a way that does not blame the victim. But blacks are not behind academically and economically because of racism. We are behind because four centuries of oppression would leave any group without much knowledge of how to develop and compete. We have less stored capital of knowledge and habit in these areas than people realize. Call this culture or a legacy of oppression or just plain backwardness, but to call it racism is to insist on the past, and to make all that you say next obsolete.
Mr. Steele is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.