Sunday, December 22, 2013

Beyond Paula Deen, Don Imus, Phil Robertson, and Other Racists Du Jour: Reforming Civil Rights Advocacy

I woke up this morning and wrote the following text that appears in quoted format beneath this paragraph. I posted it as a quote, because I did not publish it as a blog entry.  Nevertheless, I believe the text contains an important message, which readers should understand after they finish reading this blog post in its entirety.
BREAKING NEWS: A coalition students, academics, famous actors, bloggers, and civil rights organizations are staging a massive protest in front of the Florida capitol building. The protesters demand an end to institutional racism in Florida public schools. They claim that historic inequality in public schools has only worsened over time; today, 2/3 of black and Latino students attend schools where they are the only racial group and where over 80 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch subsidies. An abundance of educational research documents the harm caused by poverty schools.  
A study by the US DOJ has also demonstrated that students color color and disabled students in Florida are routinely disciplined for behavior that does not lead to sanctions when white and more able-bodied students engage in the same behavior. Multiple studies show that harsh disciplinary sanctions, such as long suspensions, expulsions, transfers to "alternative education" injure the educational process, lead to criminality, and ultimately place these students in the prison pipeline. 
The protesters want the Governor to fire the State Secretary of Education and to develop programming that will give access to quality education, which in turn would empower them economically and politically. The protests have caused a major whirl on Facebook and other social media, as progressives, liberals, moderates, and even many conservatives have promoted the cause online. Furthermore, a petition at Change.Org has received over 3 million signatures. Stay tuned for more details.
I did not post this essay because it describes a fictional event. It satirizes a dangerous contemporary trend among civil rights activists and organizations. These justice advocates reserve their loudest protests to combat individual bigots of the day. Paula Deen, Don Imus, and Phil Robertson immediately come to mind as examples of "racists du jour." A racist du jour is a lone individual who makes a racially offensive statement, which attracts intense media and public scrutiny. Civil rights activists also condemn the speech. Typically, opponents of the individual's comments, including civil rights activists, demand that the individual lose his or her job. Seemingly, there is no middle ground. Termination is the only option.

I believe that this stark type of activism betrays liberal and equitable principles of flexibility. It applies a one-size-fits-all formula; it also goes for the harshest sanction available. Conservatives engage in the same practices, sometimes regardless of the merits of the argument (think: Shirley Sherrod and Lani Guinier).

Even worse, the repeated advocacy against racists du jour gives the impression that individual bigotry is the most important barrier to disadvantaged groups. This view, however, does not comport with reality. Institutionalized inequality exists, and it does not represent the sum total of individual bigotry. Institutional inequality also has sweeping effects. Its harms are generational; it also causes immediate and long-term material consequences. While Robertson's speech might hurt many people, I am not persuaded that it can top the harms of multiple centuries of repression. Accordingly, the disparate responses to institutional and individualized bigotry among the public, media, and (especially) civil rights activists likely represents misplaced priorities.

Many people describe Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as one of the most passionate voices for equality in world history. The recently deceased Nelson Mandela occupies the same list. These men, however, did not limit their work or even focus primarily upon isolated incidents of racism by du jour racists. Instead, they challenged racism and economic inequality that are fashioned in legislation, courts, executives, national culture, churches, corporations, police forces, and other broad societal institutions. These structural demands have given way largely to social movement strategies that focus upon shaming individuals, rather than advocating institutional reform.

I am not claiming that no social justice advocates pursue institutional reform. Nor am I claiming that individual bigotry is unimportant. Instead, given the terribly injurious impact of structural inequality, one would logically expect this issue to occupy center stage within social justice movements. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

People who claim to live according to the philosophy these two champions of equality need to examine their history.  Many of today's social justice advocates will find wide disparities in their activism and the activism of Mandela, King and other successful civil rights leaders of the past. These differences are not simply stylistic. The passage of time and new situations also do not justify these differences. Institutional inequality remains a substantial source of disempowerment.  Ignoring institutionalized inequality or giving it less attention than individual bigotry is a problematic and very limited civil rights strategy.

See also: Duck Dynasty and Discrimination: Firing Phil Robertson Will Not Advance Gay Rights Or Racial Justice!

1 comment:

CDP said...

Who are the real impediments to racial equality?  The current Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Roberts, has probably never used a racial epithet.  In Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1, Justice Roberts offered this sanctimonious thought: "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."  Yet the substance of Justice Roberts's opinion serves to perpetuate school segregation.  Paula Deen is a joke.  For proponents of racial equality, the serious enemies are those who espouse "color-blindness" in order to render civil rights laws unenforceable, since such laws require the recognition of different races.

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