A New Civil Rights Agenda

Article excerpt

Few issues in American life have been as intransigent as race. In every century, race has presented the nation its greatest paradoxes, challenges, and opportunities, calling into question time and again the principle of equality on which it was founded. * During the 1950s and 1960s, the golden era of civil rights activism, the civil rights movement mobilized the nation's collective consciousness around issues of racial equity. The U.S. Supreme Court officially ended legal school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954. Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Black political participation increased dramatically. In 1964, only 5 blacks served in the U.S. Congress. By 1998, the number had grown to 39.

But the victories of the movement, however decisive they seemed at the time, did not bring the long-term parity that activists and policymakers hoped for. Bread-and-butter issues such as unemployment, substandard housing, inferior education, unsafe streets, escalating child poverty, and homelessness supplanted the right to vote, eat at a lunch counter, and attend desegregated schools. As new issues arose, appearing and intensifying in ways that fell beyond the scope of the legislation and social reforms, the old civil rights model--one that relied mostly on judicial and protest remedies--seemed less and less effective in dealing with them.

Contributions of the Movement

The civil rights movement made lasting contributions to the nation. Above all, it helped eliminate the legal apartheid that had dogged the United States since its earliest days. It also created a national expectation that individuals and groups had the right to petition their government to right legal wrongs affecting them. In its wake there developed a broad base of constituent interest groups--women, the elderly, children's rights advocates, the handicapped, homosexuals, environmentalists--that emphasize the rights of affected parties to be a critical part of the decisions affecting their interests.

Ironically, the emergence of those constituent groups, each with its own divergent interests, made it much more difficult to sustain the old civil rights coalition of members of labor, the faith communities, and sympathetic whites and blacks to advance the new issues of post-civil rights America. Indeed, the dominant ethos of the sixties, racial integration and equality, has given way to an implicit but insidious assumption by many whites and blacks today that voluntary racial isolation and segregation are acceptable even among those whose fundamental interests are similar.

The American citizenry is also divided over whether the unfinished civil rights agenda has its origins in race or social class, and even whether government reforms such as affirmative action should address the lingering problems. The compelling evidence of African-American progress found in the burgeoning middle class helps explain why opponents of a race-based agenda feel the way they do. Meanwhile poverty in a large and intractable black underclass reaches deep into inner cities and rural communities nationwide and decisively constricts the life chances for affected parties, particularly children.

The Unfinished Civil Rights Agenda

Two issues remain on the civil rights agenda. The first is addressing the persistence of racial disparities. The second is redefining the agenda to fit a vastly changing American demographic profile.

Black-white inequality persists in income, education, health, housing, technology access, and safe communities. The national media increasingly report on racial profiling in what has come to be euphemistically referred to as "driving while black," in the denial of equal access to rent or purchase housing, and in disparities in arrests and sentencing in the criminal justice system.

Many still view government intervention as the most effective means to provide the leadership to eliminate the disparities. …