Make class, not race, key and restore moral authority to civil rights causes

March 19, 1998|By Gregory Rodriguez

IN THE 1960s, the civil rights movement owed much of its momentum and power to a moral authority derived from historical circumstances. Most fair-minded Americans accepted the idea that blacks' historical experience of discrimination justified legal and social redress.

By contrast, the addition of women, Latinos and Asians to the civil rights movement was more politics than morality. One consequence is that race lost its role as the primary determinant of a civil rights claim. Another is that the uniqueness of the black experience became obscured by the growing list of groups -- including people 40 and older, gays and the disabled -- granted protected minority status.

There is certainly no denying the potential political benefits of finding common cause among minorities, especially for small groups that can claim to be part of a larger coalition. But the rise of minority-coalition politics have impeded the fight against inequality.

The once morally grounded civil rights movement has degenerated into a victimization contest in which all groups feel aggrieved and seek redress. Instead of worrying about the poorest and most disenfranchised in U.S. society, regardless of race, we have lost the moral imperative that drove the civil rights movement in the first place.

In part, the broadening of the civil rights family is a natural consequence of activists from other minority groups imitating the successful tactics and strategies of black leaders. To promote redress, the Census Bureau releases demographic data advocacy groups so they can better demonstrate their constituents' needs when competing with other nonwhites for government grants and corporate donations.

But the politicization of demography leads researchers and activists to interpret any wage and education gaps between whites and minorities as prima facie proof of discrimination. Accordingly, the distinction between immigrant poverty and that multigenerational Americans is often blurred.

Discrimination's role

These kinds of comparisons mask the fact that different minorities face different biases and barriers, and that each group has its own strengths to draw on in combating them. James P. Smith, a senior economist at Rand, weighed the progress of different American groups over generations. This longitudinal approach helps to sort out the role discrimination plays in impeding social and economic mobility.

Mr. Smith concluded that the black experience cannot be compared to the immigrant experiences of Latinos and Asians. Compared with whites, blacks -- after 10 generations in America -- still lag significantly in income and education achievement. Mexican-Americans, by contrast, manage to close the education and income gap with whites after three generations. Asian-Americans, on average, outperform whites in both education and income within one generation.

Not surprisingly, these differences carry over to housing and employment, critical issues in the civil rights struggle. A 1992 survey of Los Angeles County home-loan mortgage data suggests that different groups have different rates of success in securing home loans.

Middle-income Latino applicants had a slightly higher approval rate than middle-income whites. Asian-Americans were the most likely of any group to get a loan. Blacks with similar income had the highest rate of rejection.

A similar pattern can be gleaned from employment data. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, blacks still file more job-discrimination cases than any other minority. Whites older than 40 are the second-most common complainants, followed by women. Agency data indicate that blacks still face more discrimination than any racial minority group. Despite the huge increase in the numbers of Latinos and Asian-Americans, no commensurate increase is seen in the numbers of Latino and Asian complainants.

To be sure, Asian and Latino immigrants are less likely to file such complaints for cultural reasons. But whatever the number of their discrimination complaints, it is still unclear whether they should be eligible for programs such as affirmative action, whose primary rationale has always been to redress historical injustices. The vast majority of Latino and Asian families arrived in the United States after passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act, when the kind of legal discrimination that blacks endured had been banned.

Racism surely exists in the United States. But not all racism is discrimination. And not all prejudice is institutionalized. With anti-discrimination laws a permanent fixture of the U.S. legal system, and the civil rights agenda diluted and off course, it is time to reconsider our solutions to economic inequality.

Efforts to assist disadvantaged Americans should be based on class. As such, the definition of "disadvantaged" should pivot on poverty and hardship, not on one's ethnicity. Just as we cannot lump the experiences of all nonwhite people into one common fate, we cannot treat the experiences of a middle-class minority and a poor minority as comparable. The rise of large ethnic middle classes destroys any notion that all members of a given group face the same barriers.

This is an excerpt of a Los Angeles Times article by Gregory Rodriguez, associate editor at Pacific News Service and a fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy.

Pub Date: 3/19/98

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