The current African American civil rights movement is a mess, an incoherent collection of half-baked ideas, ill-advised public outrages and, to be kind, a troubled leadership. Long gone are the glory days when blacks and white allies worked for anti-discrimination laws covering public accommodations and employment, access to the ballot, ending school segregation, implementing programs to eliminate poverty and similar aims clearly beneficial to millions of African Americans. Today instead we’ve had calls for Congress to ban “stand your ground” provisions of state laws, cities to abolish job applications that ask about prior criminal records (“ban the box”), more Department of Justice scrutiny of local police practices, repeated cries that any and all obstacles to voting be removed (despite historically high levels of black voting) and perhaps most imprudent of all, street rallies to transform common criminals (e.g., Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner) into civil rights heroes. And let’s not forget endless disingenuous calls for national dialogues on race. “We shall overcome” has given way to “Hands up, Don’t Shoot” and “I can’t breathe.”
A similar incoherent jumble of banalities afflicts the agendas of prominent civil rights organizations. Just visit the NAACP Legal Defense Fund website that now traffics exclusively in banalities: end bias in the criminal justice system, protect voting rights of all Americans, promote economic fairness via equal pay for all Americans (no, I’m not making up that demand ) and, lastly, removing racial barriers to educational opportunity. The NAACP similarly demands that “…all students have access to an equal and high-quality public education by abolishing education-related racial and ethnic disparities in our public schools.” And let’s not forget the Rev. Al Sharpton in his seemingly endless national “No Justice No Peace” tour (his website calls for “substantive change”).
The “movement” is running on fumes, if not brain dead while spewing vague rhetoric that cannot be translated into passable legislative programs. Worse politically, some of these demands such as additional racial set asides are either illegal or electoral suicide for the Democratic Party.
Let me explain the sorry state of affairs: Since its modern inception, the African American civil rights movement has almost exclusively stressed politics (including litigation). It was an alluring pathway for many given that voting and marching was less demanding than, say, hitting the books or struggling in an entry level job. Alas, the pay-offs from politicking are now minimal if not negative. And absent a concrete legislative agenda, the campaign now resembles herding cats. Yes, you may be able vote sans any ID and sue your way to majority-minority legislative districts, but these triumphs cannot achieve economic equality and that’s what the current battle is about. Yes, a city’s political leadership may be all black, and a black President and Attorney General may shower the city with funds but such windfalls cannot be translated into educational achievement and flourishing business start-ups. Even affirmative action, the one politically policy explicitly designed to mitigate economic inequalities has not brought significant change though, to be sure, many individual blacks have been enriched.
More generally, no ethnic/racial group has prospered economically with a politics first strategy. As Thomas Sowell demonstrates, the rate of black economic progress was higher prior to the civil rights era than afterward. Jews today enjoy above average wealth but this was not accomplished by grandpa marching on Washington. Today’s Asians know this pathway well: money first, then power, not the reverse.
Time for Plan B and ample past successes aside, a Plan B is necessary given that blacks as a group are in many ways no better off today than in the 1960s when politically driven intervention shifted into high gear. Conspicuous black pathologies, notably high crime, illegitimacy, disproportionate welfare dependency remain as troubling as before. The gap in academic achievement has resisted billions and endless pedagogical tinkering. Economic progress is likewise modest —the median level of assets in white households is 20 times that of black households. The unemployment rate for blacks has steadily been twice that of whites and all the Great Society programs begun in the 1960s has had nearly zero impact. Most plainly, cities with high concentrations of blacks, e.g., Detroit, East St. Louis, Garry, IN among others, all long been politically dominated by blacks, resemble Third World slums despite billions in government assistance.
Of course the likes of Jesse Jackson will insist that an over-reliance on politics is not the problem; rather, insufficient political pressure is the culprit. Just double down on the agitation and the march to equality will be back on track. Reality is undoubtedly the opposite. Today’s Obama administration is surely the high water mark of black progress-by-political-decree. Hard to imagine any future president embracing an Eric Holder-like pro-civil rights agenda. It is also doubtful that blacks will soon grow politically more talented by becoming more skilled at fund-raising or building effective grass roots organizations. More important in the long run, the African American population is not expanding and is already being pushed aside by a growing Hispanic presence in the battle for zero-sum government entitlements. Ironically, Hispanic political ascendency may surge thanks to President’s Obama’s pro-Hispanic immigration policies and, eventually, the push for citizenship. Further add growing legal opposition to policies that have marginally narrowed economic differences, namely affirmative action and set asides
Now, let us assume that black leaders recognize the futility of upping political pressure, what might Plan B entail? Of all the possible options, the most effective alternative would be some form of self-help versus repeatedly beseeching Uncle Sam. Just take a page out of the classic immigrant upward mobility game plan. So rather than harangue the Department of Justice to sensitize allegedly racist cops to the black culture, locals could organize “safe-streets” neighborhood-crime watch programs. Or create a food co-op to replace supposedly predatory convenience stores run by ethnic outsiders. Such alternatives are affordable and are quite popular.
The advantages of this private sector strategy are seldom properly understood. A black-owned Mom and Pop shoe store may appear trifling but this is deceptive. Mom and Pop will not grow rich, but even a hole-in-the-wall operation may have half a million in discretionary spending. As owners Mom and Pop can hire some local workers and favor black suppliers–everything from accounting services to advertising in black-owned media. With thousands of these small enterprises, black economic clout will multiply. Think all the wholesale firms hiring Spanish-speaking salespeople to service thousands of Hispanic-owned bodegas. Unfortunately, African Americans are seriously under-represented in small business and, to make matters worse, these enterprises have lower sales and profits, hire fewer workers and disproportionally fail (the pattern for small Asian businesses is just the opposite).
But, hope springs eternal, and a tradition of black self-help exists does exist. Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) is the most famous example who sought to help blacks slowly move up the economic ladder via the trades and modest enterprises versus demanding government handouts. Unfortunately, however, W. E. B. Du Bois’s more militant political strategy triumphed when Washington died. Then there’s Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) whose United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) aimed to build black-run enterprises such as factories grocery stores, restaurants, publishers and, most famously, the Black Star Line, that was to transport millions of blacks back to Africa. Another example is the preacher Father Devine (1876-1965) who declared himself god and enjoyed a scandal plagued life but did buy and run a number of hotels (even charging the poorest residents for lodging and meals) for his followers plus some inexpensive restaurants and budget clothing stores in New York City’s Harlem, Los Angeles and Seattle, Washington. His religious sermons stressed paying in cash and avoiding public welfare. He even condemned much of FDR’s New Deal for is debilitating handouts.
Now for the bad news: all these self-help enterprises were tiny, short-lived blips in a long history of dependency. All vanished when the charismatic leader died. In fact, even federal government help to jump-start a black entrepreneurial class has largely failed (though there has been greater success with funding black immigrant-run businesses but this hardly helps overall). For example, the Small Business Administration (SBA) has traditionally had special programs to help black-run businesses and has invested millions but with little to show. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, blacks received only 1.7% of the $23.09 billion in SBA loans or roughly 2.3% of the 54,000 loans that were made. Meanwhile, the proportion of the loans made to Asians increased. According to officials, this drop in lending to blacks reflects greater scrutiny and the lowered credit worthiness that came with declining home prices (the typical collateral for these loans). One might also speculate that having a black president and other black top federal officials may have deepened the over-reliance on Washington. So much for Plan B’s economic self-sufficiency.
All and all, the infatuation with top-down political solutions seems hard-wired regardless of altry rates of return. Nor is there any awaiting miracle cure and supposedly new proposals will be greeted with: “yes we tried that back in …. and again in …. and it didn’t work then, so why should it work now?” Civil rights activists may well be happy to just protect existing programs like Section 8 housing or Head Start despite their very modest results.
The likely upshot will be continued almost random reactions to high-profile incidents which, in their totality, will result in, at best, minimal progress aside from mass media hype. To reiterate, absent a clear, high consensus political agenda, the movement will resemble herding cats. Such disarray also makes the rag-tag movement open to (usually white) Marxist agitators and this hijacking will only squander the movement’s remaining moral legitimacy.
Meanwhile whites running for office will face serious obstacles when trying to mobilize black voters. What can they possibly promise when every major piece of legislation (and court decree) once demanded by civil rights leaders is now almost sacrosanct? Pandering will not be easy. Might these candidates demand more Section 8 housing, an end to genocidal police practices or more aggressive affirmative action in higher education? Appoint ex-President Obama to the Supreme Court? Save in largely black areas, such fawning campaign planks may well alienate potential white and Asian voters. Meanwhile black leaders such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson will continue their shakedown-like demands for more inclusion and diversity all the while keeping an eye out for the next Michael Brown or Eric Garner. As Eric Hoffer put it, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”