America's civil rights movement, that organized effort to bring justice to those who had long been denied it, seems adrift. Increasingly, the issues and causes often defined as "civil rights" appear unsubstantial when compared with the transformational struggles for the minds and hearts of the American people waged from about the end of the 1940s through much of the 1960s.
Recently, Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn couched the grocery workers strike and lockout as a civil rights fight, even though the issues are classic labor-management disagreements over salary and benefits. Several City Council members echoed his remarks.
Examples of special-interest issues cast as civil rights causes abound. Latino activists recently called for a daylong work and school boycott to protest Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's repeal of the law that would have allowed illegal immigrants to get a driver's license. The activists claim the repeal is racist and anti-Latino.
Earlier in 2003, then-Gov. Gray Davis signed into law a bill that allowed discrimination claims to be filed if, for example, a business owner (even one with as few as five employees) did not hire an applicant whose "dress or behavior is different from that traditionally associated with the [prospective] employee's birth gender" (i.e. cross-dressers and transgender individuals).
Such issues deserve a full debate, but are they civil rights issues? Or are they simply an attempt to use the mantle of civil rights to push forward the cause of identity politics?
The images and issues that required a large-scale movement to grant civil rights to those who had long been denied those rights were not terribly complex. Lester Maddox and his ilk were not subtle. The racism experienced by older generations was raw, unvarnished racial and ethnic discrimination. This in-your-face racism took the form of quotas on Jews attending Harvard, gays forced to live in the shadows, blacks coping with segregated public accommodations and Japanese Americans interned during World War II.
Today, what we get is Rasheed Wallace, a spoiled NBA player with a multimillion-dollar contract, complaining that racially tinged civil rights issues lie at the heart of player-owner relations.
Stories of stark racial discrimination, subjugation and exclusion, once routine, are now thankfully rare. Reminders of the old racial and social order come only occasionally: James Byrd being dragged behind a pickup truck in Texas; Matthew Shepard tied to a fence post and beaten to death in Wyoming. Such events shock the sensibilities of most Americans -- of all colors and backgrounds -- precisely because so much has changed for the better.
If most of today's civil rights establishment seems to be driving down the road with its eyes planted on the rearview mirror, what's being missed? Well, for starters, what about the bloody reign of terror occurring in many urban black and brown communities -- not as the result of white supremacist group activities but because black and brown thugs victimize residents? Black leaders fear that speaking publicly about this problem is the equivalent of airing dirty laundry.
Orthodox civil rights groups are also largely silent on what may be the most important civil rights issue of our time: the perplexing and shocking racial learning gap between white and Asian students at one end of the learning spectrum and black and Latino students at the other. By the 12th grade, on average, black and Latino students are four years behind their white and Asian counterparts.
The data suggest that poverty, racism, class size and spending are not major factors. Instead, it is the inability to hold teachers accountable, powerful teacher unions that have lost focus, school cultures based in failure and a dominant culture in many black and Latino homes and communities that, in part, leads to kids watching too much television, having little exposure to books, facing peer pressure that ridicules academic excellence and having insufficient parental involvement in their educational lives.
Unless we make closing the education gap the highest priority, staggering numbers of black and Latino youngsters will continue to emerge from high school with little ability to compete and succeed in life.
Mainline civil rights groups need to stop looking in the rearview mirror and complaining only about hot-button issues that get donors' juices flowing. Let's keep our eyes on the ever-moving areas of real concern.