Half Past Midnight for Civil Rights

July 06, 1995|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The Supreme Court's recent rollbacks in civil rights have provoked black and Hispanic leaders into what many are calling an eleventh-hour response. To me, it looks more like half-past midnight.

The high court's decision to eliminate race as the ''predominant factor'' in drawing legislative districts ended a session that also saw sharp limits on federal contract set-asides, limits on school-desegregation efforts and the allowance of a lower-court decision to dismantle a University of Maryland scholarship program for minorities.

A number of angry black and Hispanic political leaders and social activists are calling for retaliation through a new round of rallies, boycotts and voter registration drives.

''Our job is in the streets, organizing,'' Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said. ''Conferences, rallies, protests -- we've got to put the numbers together. We've got to put a face on what is happening to us.''

It's about time. In fact, it's more than a bit late.

If angry minority leaders want to ''put a face'' on this new wave of outrages, they might begin with the face in the mirror. I can think of at least five major ways black leaders and their sympathizers went wrong since the mid-1960s:

For one, they allowed their enemies to define the terms of the debate. Conservatives have had 30 years of virtually free time to organize and sharpen their arguments while Jesse Jackson and other progressives tried to ignore them or dismiss them as ''racist'' or ''sexist'' or otherwise politically incorrect. Not only did this squander the shock value of the ''racist'' and ''sexist'' charge; it also blunted constructive debate and allowed the arguments of supporters to grow stale and flabby.

Second, civil-rights leaders failed to educate their own supporters. In my travels to campuses, I have encountered countless black college students who say they support affirmative action yet don't really know much about what it is or how it works, except maybe for a scholarship they might have won. When questioned by white classmates, they have no response other than a cold shoulder and a lame rebuff like ''You should know the answer.''

As a result, even the beneficiaries of affirmative action fail to appreciate its value. For a leading example, take Clarence Thomas. Please.

Third, black leaders depended too much on the courts and too little on building grass-roots coalitions across racial lines. When Republicans reached out with their own populist appeal, they simply changed the courts and undid the court-ordered reforms.

Martin Luther King Jr. and his early Southern civil-rights movement understood the value of coalition-building for a minority group to enhance its clout and preserve its rights. The later black-empowerment movements turned inward. The result has been white flight from the Democratic Party, particularly in the South, growing strength for the Republicans and a widening gap in racial understanding.

Ironically, the Supreme Court's recent decision to eliminate race as the ''predominant factor'' in redistricting may help bridge that racial gap once again by spreading black voters around a bit and forcing more campaigning and accountability across racial lines, even in House Speaker Newt Gingrich's district. Politics is funny that way.

Fourth, the vision of civil-rights leaders has been socially and politically impaired since the '60s. Despite their tireless ''unity'' calls, black leaders are strikingly divided over what direction black America should take. So are grass-roots African-Americans. Do we need equal rights or special rights? Is integration the way to go, or separatism?

In that sense, Justice Thomas spoke for a lot of blacks when he argued that separate black schools were not necessarily a bad thing in concurring with the court's 5-4 decision to forbid a federal judge from seeking to integrate a big-city public school system by ordering extra spending that would make it more attractive to white suburbanites.

Many blacks agree that busing is a pain in the neck and that black students don't have to sit next to white students in order to learn.

But I think most also would agree with Jesse Jackson that spending on black education is low enough to constitute a severe handicap to thousands of black youngsters in an increasingly information-oriented society. So, in the real world, separate public schooling remains too inherently unequal for Justice Thomas to be extracting the federal government from it so abruptly.

Finally, one of the worst places black leaders went wrong was in their giving what I would call a ''skin pass'' to too many lackluster black performers simply because they were black. The biggest beneficiary of this tokenism may have been Clarence Thomas. Two parties can play that game.

The results are proving to be disastrous to the very causes black leaders now are working so desperately and so belatedly to rescue. Welcome to the eleventh hour, folks. It's later than you think.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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