Trayvon Martin And The Decline Of The Civil Rights Ideal

Anyone with access to the Wall Street Journal should hasten to read Shelby Steele’s article today, “The Exploitation of Trayvon Martin,” and if you don’t have access you should borrow it somewhere.

Most impressive, I think, was what Steele sees as one of the saddest lessons of this tragedy:

Before the 1960s the black American identity (though no one ever used the word) was based on our common humanity, on the idea that race was always an artificial and exploitive division between people. After the ’60s—in a society guilty for its long abuse of us—we took our historical victimization as the central theme of our group identity. We could not have made a worse mistake.

Blacks were not alone in making that grave error. They had plenty of company from white liberals, who abandoned their formerly fundamental principles so precipitously after the 1960s that they kept tripping over their old arguments. If you ask a liberal today whether she believes in civil rights, she’ll look at you like you’re crazy to even ask. Next, ask her if she believes Americans have a right to be treated by their governments without regard to their race and see if she still thinks the question is silly.

As I wrote here nearly a decade ago,

From the 1830s through the 1960s people who opposed slavery, segregation, and discrimination were firmly committed to the principle of colorblindness, i.e., that everyone should be treated “without regard” to race, ethnicity, religion. Indeed, this principle was widely regarded as the most fundamental of American core values, what Gunnar Myrdal called “The American Creed.” Then, in what historically was the blink of an eye at the end of the 1960s, most liberals abandoned that principle and adopted “race-conscious” remedies as necessary to achieve racial equality.

And again, in “The Degradation Of American Liberalism” back in 2006,

For most of its recent history — for virtually all of its 20th Century history — perhaps the two most fundamental, core commitments of American liberalism were its devotion to free speech and its determined opposition to racial discrimination.

Notice I said “were” rather than “have been,” because unfortunately both of those twin, identifying principles have been largely discarded….

In short, where liberalism was once all but defined by its support for free speech and its opposition to racial discrimination, the thrust of liberal scholarship for the past generation has been to tear down the wall that protects speech from government regulation [“hate speech” and campaign finance “reform”] and to build up the defenses that protect official racial preferences from the sorts of arguments liberals used to make, such as the argument that individuals should be treated “without regard” to race, creed, or color.

Aside from the merits of any particular restriction on speech or any particular protection of racial preferences, what is now left of liberalism as a coherent political philosophy?

Not much.

And again in 2009:

For almost the entirety of its history in this country liberalism has stood proudly and firmly in favor of free speech and colorblind racial equality. This generation of liberals, however, has discarded both of those principles and now spends most of its academic time inventing new ways of trashing them.

What a mess of liberalism they’ve made.

Are there any elected Democrats in the United States today who will say in public that they believe in colorblind racial equality — not as an abstraction, not as some ideal, pie-in-the sky future goal, but as a principle that should prevent the federal and state governments from treating some people better and others worse because of their race? If so, please point them out.



Say What? (11)

  1. James A. Donald April 5, 2012 at 8:35 pm | | Reply

    > “From the 1830s through the 1960s people who opposed slavery, segregation, and discrimination were firmly committed to the principle of colorblindness, i.e., that everyone should be treated “without regard” to race, ethnicity, religion”

    Not so. Affirmative action for women and blacks goes back all the way to 1890 or so. It was merely that before 1972 it was more furtive and smaller scale.

    Until 1970, the less they practiced the principle of color blindness, the louder they proclaimed it.

    Back in the eighteenth century was assumed that when women and blacks became emancipated, they would naturally become scientists, engineers, bosses, and so forth. When this conspicuously failed to happen, leftists quickly concluded that subtle invisible barriers were still in place, and set out to remedy this magic invisible racism and sexism by artificially paying extra special attention to counter stereotypical blacks, for example John Jacob Thomas, making them into poster blacks, and artificially manufacturing allegedly counter stereotypical women to be poster girls, for example Marie Curie.

    Affirmative action set in almost immediately after emancipation, and has been getting worse ever since.

  2. James A. Donald April 6, 2012 at 6:39 am | | Reply

    > Then it meant to take affirmative actions to see that all applicants and employees were treated without regard to race.

    Which is ambiguous between opportunity and outcome – and always has been.

    The failure of emancipation to produce the expected results was an immediate crisis. It had to be sexism, racism, or innate inferiority. And there was a large and increasing circle where it was distinctly inadvisable to say “innate inferiority”. In much of America, for quite a while, you could say blacks were inferior, but not in all of America, nor in much of England at all. By 1900, it was pretty much career suicide for an academic to say that women or blacks were inferior.

    It is not true that we went straight from Jim Crow to affirmative action, from disfavoring blacks and women to favoring blacks and women, rather both systems overlapped, with the areas where they were disfavored shrinking, and the areas where they were favored expanding.

  3. Federale April 6, 2012 at 10:54 am | | Reply

    The problem is that Trayvon was not innocent. He violently attacked George Zimmerman. Trayvon was already deep in a life of crime and bragged about his assault on a bus driver. However, Trayvon made the mistake of assaulting someone who was armed. Big violation of basic rules of survival. Don’t bring your tough guy attitude, racist contempt for whites or Hispanics, and your fists to a gun fight.

    1. Cobra April 7, 2012 at 5:20 pm | | Reply

      And you know this how?

      Oh, right…the KILLER said so himself.

      And you wonder why people like me raise a ruckus on these comment boards?


      1. Ella April 13, 2012 at 12:26 pm | | Reply

        Actually, there were six witnesses at the time that corroborated GZ’s story (that Trayvon was on top of him and violently beating him), and he had injuries to the back of his head and face. All of that exists outside the direct testimony of GZ himself.

        1. Cobra April 20, 2012 at 9:03 pm | | Reply

          Name them. These folks have to actually step forward, swear under oath, testify, and face cross-examination. Take the LIE 29 year old Zimmerman said on the stand today, when he told Martin’s parents that he thought Trayvon Martin was “a few years younger than me”, when the 911 tapes CLEARLY say that Zimmerman thought he was a teenager.

          I get it. I really do. Many conservatives have rallied around to defend Zimmerman, just like they do whenever unarmed minorities are killed.

          The message is always the same.

          The minority had it coming, and deserved what they got.

          Don’t be offended if conscious minorities like myself don’t subscribe to that point of view.


  4. James A. Donald April 6, 2012 at 3:39 pm | | Reply

    But every liberal today will swear that there is no discrimination in favor of women and blacks. On the contrary, supposedly there is still discrimination against them. Supposedly every prominent woman in science is there entirely on her merits, and the fact that she is prominent is proof of her merits. To doubt their merits is to accuse the academic community of fraud, is an unfalsifiable paranoid conspiracy theory.

  5. Cobra April 7, 2012 at 5:26 pm | | Reply

    I’m EAGERLY awaiting John Rosenberg’s next piece with his opinion of John Derbyshire’s recent article.

    “The Talk: Non-Black Version”

    Yes, I’ve got my popcorn popped and buttered.

    Let’s go, John!


Say What?