Throw civil rights movement in to history's dustbin

September 27, 1998|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Some good news has gone unremarked: The Civil War is over. So is its once invaluable echo, the anachronism still called, with a nostalgia impervious to the passage of time, "the civil rights movement."

That is the significance of the limp report by the president's advisory board on race relations, a body that in its 15 months of existence was almost unscathed by the happy fact that race is of steadily declining significance in a country where the three most admired citizens may be Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey and Colin Powell.

After more than 300 confabulations, including presidential town meetings, the board reached self-parody with its final recommendation that something like itself should be made immortal -- that there should be a permanent presidential council on race.

But, then, the board's beginning in 1997 was tinged with surrealism. President Clinton traveled to the sort of place where talk about race is obsessive -- a university (the University of California at San Diego) -- and urged Americans to talk more about race.

The board was born amid solemn chatter about the wonderfulness of "diversity." (At UCSD, Mr. Clinton said his life had been "immeasurably enriched" by "the beauty of the Koran" and "the piercing wisdom of the religions of the East and South Asia.") But the board preferred diversity that did not include robust skepticism about the racial spoils system of preferences.

Mr. Clinton's "mend it, don't end it" pledge regarding that system has not meant mending it noticeably: none of the federal government's 160 programs of preferences has been abolished. The Democratic Party and much of what is carelessly called "black leadership" have an interest in the myth that blacks (never mind that most consider themselves middle class) are wards of the government.

Many black leaders had a stake in having the board see America in black and white. But that is perverse as Hispanics become the largest minority and Asian-Americans become one of the most rapidly growing minorities.

Gloomy outlook

At a December "outreach meeting" on race, Vice President Al Gore spoke for the constituency of gloom, also known as the constituency of worrywart government. Invoking the specter of Bosnia and Rwanda, he stressed "a vulnerability in human nature to prejudice." If, as he says, this "evil lies coiled in the human soul," then government must redouble its close supervision of Americans' thoughts and actions, lest America's Bosnian and Rwandan propensities might erupt.

The board dismissed the idea that racial comity is jeopardized when government classifies Americans by race and awards advantages to people in favored categories. Instead, the board stressed America's "history of white privilege" and "racial domination," and the supposition that all immigrants share "a history of legally mandated and socially and economically imposed subordination to white European-Americans and their descendants." Think about that formulation.

Instead of honing almost everyone's sense of victimhood, and hence of entitlement, a sensible board would have stressed professor Glenn Loury's point: If the skin color of the people in blighted inner city settings were magically changed, that would not measurably change their prospects.

Today the principal impediments to upward mobility are not institutionalized repressions but certain behaviors (principally illegitimacy) best understood in terms of class rather than race. But the board, comfortable with the old paradigm, refused to encourage minorities to let go of the notion that progress depends on minting more rights.

Happily, old habits of mind do die. In his biography of Douglas MacArthur, "Old Soldiers Never Die," Geoffrey Perret writes that in 1925, when MacArthur, newly stationed in Atlanta, entered an Episcopal cathedral, "heads turned, whispers passed . . . and three-quarters of the congregation got up and walked out." They knew of his father's role in the Union capture of Atlanta.

In the 1920s, when George Patton's wife visited MacArthur's mother, Mrs. Patton was told: "Your husband's grandfather was a colonel in the 22nd Virginia, I believe. He was killed at Cedar Creek." Mrs. MacArthur showed her a brooch set with what looked like an unusually smooth stone. "It is," said Mrs. MacArthur, "a piece of my brother's skull. He was wounded in the head at Antietam and sent the bone splinters back to his sisters. We had them mounted into brooches."

Memories of that war have long since lost their saliency. That is now happening, although the government does not know this, to the idea that "civil rights" should be the organizing idea when planning social progress.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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