THE REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. is still a beacon of clarity, especially in these days when most public figures stumble on the race question. He led a movement for the right of blacks to vote, to use the local hospital, and to attend the neighborhood school. His goal was simply that blacks be treated with the dignity every American deserves.
Today, NBC and ABC have bowed to the demands of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and will use race and ethnicity as qualifications for high-level jobs. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has made an enormous fuss over the expulsion of six high-school thugs in Decatur, Ill. With so many miles to travel on the road to racial equality, why are so few of our nation's civil-rights leaders working on the truly urgent problems: education, families, and crime?
Jesse Jackson: Promotes outdated views. How did we get from Selma to NBC and Decatur? Perhaps through the riots of the mid-1960s. They sent tremors of fear and guilt through white America, while the Kerner Commission report of 1968 analyzing those riots set the tone for subsequent civil-rights discourse and policy. Two nations, separate and unequal: that is the lens through which Mr. Jackson, most civil-rights leaders and much of the public still see America.
Too often the nation's gaze is fixed on the rearview mirror, and it offers a distorted view. African-Americans appear as permanent victims; racism seems ubiquitous. But in the heyday of the civil-rights movement, those who fought for racial equality were optimists.
That optimism seemed vindicated by events: the passage of both the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. As Bayard Rustin, a close advisor to Dr. King, noted at the time, the "legal foundations of racism in America" had been "destroyed" with dizzying speed. It was also in 1965 that the U.S. abandoned the discriminatory national-origins quotas that had governed immigration law since the 1920s. The notion that only immigrants from Britain or Germany would make good Americans lost support in an increasingly tolerant and cosmopolitan America.
Immigration reform and landmark civil-rights legislation rested on a central moral principle: It is wrong to judge Americans on the basis of race, color, creed, sex, or national origin. Dr. King dreamed of the day when Americans would be judged by the "content of their character," not "the color of their skin." And President John F. Kennedy invoked this core principle in supporting the passage of a civil-rights bill that would demonstrate the nation's commitment to "the proposition that race has no place in American life or law."
The clarity of this moral vision was lost in the turbulent and chaotic 1960s. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson took the first step in a radically different direction. For a people "hobbled by chains," he said, opening "the gates of opportunity" would not suffice. A grievously damaged people were entitled to compete under different rules. The term affirmative action wasn't invented until later, but racial preference was implicit in LBJ's rhetoric. The urban riots that erupted only three months after his address seemed to underscore the need for race-conscious measures to ensure, as Johnson put it, "equality as a fact."
The riots came to an end in 1968, disappearing as mysteriously as they had appeared. It's still hard to say what caused them, but the Kerner Commission—appointed by Johnson—confidently offered an explanation that was a sweeping indictment of American society. Its report portrayed America in stark—literally black-and-white—terms. The American drama was a play with only two characters: bigoted whites and victimized blacks. The riots were the natural and inevitable protest against "the racial attitudes and behavior of white Americans toward black Americans."
As an analysis of what triggered the ghetto riots, the report was useless. Increasing inequality could not have been the explanation; by every conceivable measure the status of African-Americans had improved. Of course, blacks were still more likely than whites to live in poverty and suffer from higher unemployment, but those conditions were just as pervasive in cities that didn't riot.
Despite these and other glaring flaws, the Kerner Commission report has had a remarkable life. Just last month the attorney general of Massachusetts looked at statewide school test results and recalled the Kerner Commission's "pessimistic conclusion that our nation 'was moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.' " Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, recently insisted that the report's "indictment of white America" is still sound.
The report of President Clinton's Race Advisory Board, chaired by John Hope Franklin, was a warmed-over version of the Kerner findings. New demographics compelled the authors to acknowledge the large and rapidly growing presence of Asians and Hispanics, though they did so largely by conflating the experience of all "people of color." The U.S., said the report, is still governed by an oppressive "system of racial hierarchy" in which whites hold all the power, and members of "every minority group" face "significant barriers to opportunity." It went on to say that "racial and ethnic oppression … persist," and that "racial stereotypes" and "racist concepts" abound, as ugly and primitive as ever. No area of life is free of "subtle biases."
White racism was ubiquitous just a few decades ago, and it hasn't entirely disappeared. But the past is not the present. We've been moving forward, and much of the territory that now surrounds us is unfamiliar. The rise in intermarriage rates mean the categories themselves—white, black, Asian, Hispanic—are dissolving. But Mr. Jackson, the NAACP, and their friends in the university, corporate, and media worlds remain fanatically committed to the "racial hierarchy" mindset. They profit from it, getting headlines and watching television networks grovel. But their message—that the struggle against "oppression" has not changed since the 1960s—blinds the public to new realities, inhibits black progress, and erodes white goodwill. In fact, it is perhaps the single biggest obstacle to fully realizing Dr. King's magnificent dream.
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