If you take up the cause of criticizing the validity of the State, you soon discover that there are certain criticisms that are strictly verboten. Public education, roads, PBS, NPR, the National Parks, the EPA, NASA, the NIH and libraries are all pretty much sacrosanct. Any criticism of these institutions or initiatives will generally draw opprobrium and accusations of being a retrograde neanderthal.
Of all the sacred cows, the biggest of all is perhaps civil rights. Bring up civil rights, Brown v. Board of Education, the ’64 Civil Rights Act, Martin Luther King Jr. and you’re likely to hear swooning praise from all political persuasions. You are almost guaranteed that these pieces of legislation and court decisions will be hailed as brave, principled, and an unequivocal American success. The overwhelming consensus is that these legislative successes helped set America on a path towards rectifying a sordid past filled with race based oppression and state enforced segregation.
But do these legislative achievements translate into real world achievement for the communities for whom civil rights legislation is intended?
Do statistical disparities in outcomes or representation automatically indicate the presence of prejudicial attitudes?
Even if prejudicial attitudes are present, does it automatically follow that the target of discrimination is damaged for life and his economic prospects are forever compromised?
Is there a positive correlation between legislation and economic achievement?
Is the legacy of civil rights legislation rhetoric or reality?
In Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality, Dr. Thomas Sowell asks these questions and comes up with some startling answers. Not content to accept the received wisdom, he unpacks the underlying motivations and assumptions behind the civil rights movement. It is generally regarded as axiomatic that disparities in outcome or representation are the result of discriminatory views. It is further held that the very existence of these views will diminish economic prospects for the target of the discrimination. Sowell treats this as a hypothesis to be tested instead of an unchallenged article of faith. These assumptions are tested on the outcomes for both blacks and women. The results of his findings do not fit the social justice narrative and often run completely contrary to it.
Dr. Sowell draws an essential distinction at the outset. Civil rights initially meant equality of opportunity. Not equality of results. Since Brown v. Board of Education and the ’64 Civil Rights Act, the meaning of “civil rights” has swung unequivocally towards a focus on outcomes. This shift in focus has been accompanied by an ever expanding activism from the State and its various proxies in academia.
This book provides a very clear window of insight into the contemporary social justice movement and its pathological fixation on equal representation. Dr. Sowell argues that a key factor in this ideological sea change can be traced to two key edicts: LBJ’s Executive Order 11246 and Green v. County School Board of New Kent County. These two orders shifted the civil rights focus away from equality of liberty and towards equality of outcome. I personally contend that the entire contemporary social justice movement has origins in these orders.
The role of family life, parenting, technological innovation and cultural trends are rarely, if ever, acknowledged by civil rights activists. With respect to economic advancement for blacks or any other seemingly disenfranchised minority, these aspects of life are routinely shut out of political discourse. Social justice advocates are all too willing to consider the passage of a law, the election of a politician or the installation of a bureaucrat as the sole determining factor in maximizing economic achievement. Sowell deploys a trove of statistics to show how high economic achievement is closely correlated with a stable home life. Unfavorable and tragic outcomes are equally correlated with instability and single parent homes. The latter being especially true for blacks.
Sowell also examines a number of policies which align with the civil rights vision, but produce negligible results. Licensure requirements, regulation, subsidies, food stamps and minimum wage make good campaign rhetoric, but they only aggrandize politicians and undermine black achievement.
This book was published in 1984, and even back then, feminists were flogging the myth of the wage gap. The numbers were a little different, but the myth of rampant sexism remains unchanged. Sowell devotes a chapter to this fairy tale and destroys it handily and effortlessly. Though feminists like equate themselves with minorities, it is a false equivalence. The effect that motherhood and marriage plays in economic outcomes simply cannot be overstated. Despite working fewer hours and choosing careers with few physical demands, lower skill levels and greater flexibility, feminists insist on rehashing the fiction of an oppressive, sexist patriarchy that’s holding them back. The passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 as well as a labor force participation rate that’s been steadily rising since 1948 are also conveniently omitted from the standard narrative. The stubborn persistence of the wage gap myth is a sad testimony to the power of demagoguery and repetition.
Civil rights activists have successfully agitated for universal suffrage, but Sowell argues that the pursuit of equal economic outcomes by way of the ballot box or bureaucratic fiat is wrongheaded and doomed to fail. If there’s a threat of government punishment hanging over the heads of an employer in order to fulfill some arbitrary diversity quota, the hiring incentives become completely perverted. Employers will either screen out unskilled labor more aggressively or hire an employee who meets the diversity criteria, but is otherwise poorly qualified. Either way, it’s a recipe for handicapping those that the laws are intended to help.
Frederic Bastiat correctly concluded that slavery was one of the moral blights that plagued the American experiment. America has been trying to atone for the oppression of African-Americans since the passage of the 13th Amendment. Despite being one of the first major countries in the history of human civilization to end slavery, all of this self-flagellation has culminated in a contemporary social justice movement that’s more toxic and divisive than ever.
Like the original women’s suffrage movement and the efforts of early Second Wave feminism, the intentions of the Civil Rights activists were noble and laudable. Sadly, the contemporary social justice movement has mutated into an embittered and vengeful mob which prioritizes groupthink. Social justice advocates automatically assume the presence of prejudicial attitudes as the cause of poor achievement. Subsequently, they are pathologically fixated on granting preferential treatment on the basis of race and gender to the exclusion of personal achievement, skill, character and merit.
Just as Christina Hoff Sommers challenged a rising tide of irrationality within feminism, Thomas Sowell saw a comparable level of victimology brewing within civil rights activism. Like Sommers, he set out to lance the boil of opportunism and demagoguery growing on the face of American politics and academics. This festering pustule of ideological rigidity has only grown since this book’s publication in 1984. The cold facts he lays out stand tall like an immovable pillar of stone amidst the fickle winds of political hackery and academic quackery. Social justice warriors, academic ideologues, and political charlatans deserve rebuke for fomenting division, disseminating misinformation, and insisting on treating people differently because of biological traits which cannot be changed. This book is the sober rebuttal to their pathetic bleatings.