Is It Interesting to Criticize the Civil Rights Act? Down to Cases with Rand Paul and John Stossel

by John McWhorter | June 3, 2010

I have held off on writing about Rand Paul’s take on the Civil Rights Act. Partly because I am finishing a book. But also because his idea that it shouldn’t have been made illegal for businesses, as private institutions, to discriminate strikes me as, oddly, both too interesting to sound off on without long-term reflection and too uninteresting to get excited about in the moment.

Uninteresting because who among us really thinks that there will be a move any time soon to legalize segregation for American businesses? We are dealing in an abstract idea here (Paul has been criticized for not knowing the difference between a law seminar and a campaign). As such, we’re talking good copy but not serious news, what with certain slightly weightier things going on in, say, the Gulf of Mexico, Gaza, and such.

But if this thing is going to go as far as a conversation over whether Fox News’ John Stossel gets fired for agreeing with Paul, then we are slipping into the grievously unconsidered and melodramatic notion that it is the equivalent of pedophilia to say things that black people don’t like. The noise is coming from the folks at Color of Change, a website devoted to “amplifying the political voice of Black America.”

This is a voice? This sort of thing never leads to anything constructive and makes black people look incapable of close, abstract reasoning in the bargain. Yes, reasoning – which is not always “racism” when it irritates those of a race, even me. So – what does it mean to question the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

The argument is not new that there shouldn’t have been a Civil Rights Act of 1964 and that black people would have been better off nurturing their own institutions, chipping away at segregation bit by bit, and gaining equality by the same effort that other minorities put forth, rather than by fiat. I’ve heard it ventured, sometimes in public by someone unafraid to be called a racist, but usually in quiet settings.

And in truth, that fiat did have its downsides. Many wonder why there is a tendency among many blacks to adopt victimhood as an identity and almost wallow in the noble status of it. They need look no further back than 1964. Black people were freed (largely) from segregation and disfranchisement so abruptly that they hadn’t had time to get past the race-wide inferiority complex they naturally had internalized after 350 years of naked oppression. Shelby Steele gets this across most beautifully; he may have slipped on Obama, but The Content of Our Character didn’t get the National Book Award for nothing.

That inferiority complex could not disappear just because some laws were changed. And it conditioned a meme that lives on in black thought and continually perplexes old heads. The old idea was that black people should work twice as hard to prove themselves. That wasn’t fair – but today’s tacit idea is too often that black people should not have to work as hard as everyone else, as a kind of payback.

Enter our current conversation over black firefighters’ performance on written exams, with it considered beside the point to suggest that they study obsessively hard for them as some other candidates do. Not to mention the comfort with the idea that black students should not be required to make grades or test scores as high as other students because their parents don’t subscribe to magazines and may work two jobs – while Asian immigrant kids under the exact same circumstances kick scholastic butt and we are told that the comparison is unfair because their parents have “immigrant pluck.” The implication is that such pluck would be too much to expect of black people, an idea that would have sounded bizarre to gaslight-era blacks just a generation past slavery. The new notion started after 1964 (the book to consult is Stuart Buck’s new one, the best race book of the year).

And then we shake our heads when whites say in polls that they don’t consider blacks as intelligent as whites. It’s a glum state of affairs.

Yet if you ask me, this mental warping of two generations of black people, where for too many, the blame game has to fill in for true inner confidence, was collateral damage. The Civil Rights Act, in all of its peculiarity and danger – there is too little awareness of what an unprecedented advance in human history it was – was worth it. There is the argument that federal infrastructure’s support of “private” businesses justified forcing federal legislation upon them. Then the most compelling justification is that the “private” discrimination in this case was so pervasive as to deny a race of millions the basic rights of citizenship in this land. Something needed to be done.

People like Paul think that the rejection of racism as socially incorrect would have happened anyway, just later. But that’s shaky social history, presentist, as they say. A Rand Paul sees a certain inevitability in whites shedding their racism because it’s all he has ever known as a mature person, like humans supposing that evolution has been a grand series of rehearsals for us. But my, the old order had persisted for an awfully long time before it finally crumbled. The social rejection of racism was driven in large part by the head start, authority, finality, and even the drama of the legal banning of segregation.

Maybe some think that the flower children alone could have done it, or that maybe Stokely Carmichael just needed to yell even louder. I doubt it. Could the Internet have done the trick? Just maybe – but would we really have wanted black America to have to wait that long? I for one am happy, as a black person born in 1965, to have missed Jim Crow or anything like it as the result of the Civil Rights Act the year before – even if the black America I have known has paid the price of a rather tragic amount of cognitive dissonance in its wake.

Rand Paul and John Stossel would disagree with me here. The question is whether this can be classified as the stuff of intellectual debate, or whether people of their view are to be tarred as morally reprehensible “racists” mourning the America depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird, now being celebrated for its sesquicentennial. On that, Leonard Pitts in the Miami Herald has a piece that made me think, calling Paul on his claim that despite his strict interpretation of private property rights, he abhors racism and would have marched with Martin Luther King. Pitts thinks that Paul and like-minded people would not have, and thus are modern versions of the whites standing on the sidelines of Civil Rights marches shouting and throwing rocks.

Really, I have decided, that’s a good thinking point – I can imagine assigning it to a class for discussion – but not fair. If Paul says that he would have been in favor of banning segregation of public facilities, then given that this was the more prominent issue in Civil Rights protests, upon what basis other than a reflexive, almost recreational kind of suspicion can we say that he would have rejected the protests as nonsense for agitating against segregated lunch counters as well?

And if he would have done this, would that have made him simply a “racist” against black advancement, as opposed to someone less interested in empathy than in legal niceities? Given the signature status of the Civil Rights revolution in American and human history, such a view will hardly elicit warm feelings in most of us. However, does it make a person morally unfit in a universal sense? Is  it useful to dragoon the term “racist” into applying to people for whom race problems are urgent in facets, but less of a priority overall than they are for people of the race in question?

It puts me in mind, of all things, of a failed Leonard Bernstein musical. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, in 1976, depicted a pageant of American Presidents in the guise of a portrait of America ever in rehearsal of realizing its basic principles. It had four main players – two as assorted Presidents and First Ladies, and two others as a black couple playing, over time, slaves and servants. The idea, just twelve years after 1964, was that admitting black people as full human beings was The Story of America, such that an evening’s musical theatre about our nation would focus on that.

It ran five nights: it didn’t work then, and it doesn’t now. Like today’s rhetoric taking that stance, it’s beautiful music – so beautiful it almost hurts. But the idea that black issues are incontrovertibly The Main Meal of what American history consists of is reductive and preachy. There are other things, especially because most Americans are not black Americans.

In any case, we have to remember, after all, that people of this Libertarian take suppose that businesses that discriminate would eventually fail because of the unpopularity of the stance – and no one can deny that here in 2010, as opposed to the America of Mad Men, overt racism has distinctly little social cachet. Paul and Stossel are not saying that they espouse a return to 1960; they simply wish that its eclipse had been approached in a different fashion. Stossel has said: “I won't ever go to a place that’s racist and I will tell everybody else not to and I’ll speak against them.” Even Color of Change admits that “They argue that the free market will take care of effects related to race -- since they and countless others wouldn’t support businesses that chose to discriminate, those businesses would eventually fail.”

So – yes, Stossel is saying that if he had it his way, I would suddenly find myself barred from some hotels, bars, and restaurants. But also that he wouldn’t patronize those places himself and would shout their sin to the heavens with his pulpit, convinced that as a result those businesses would close and my kids and grandchildren wouldn’t go through what I did. And in our America where to be tarred as a racist is to be classified as a Hitler, we cannot say that such an argument is insane. Debatable? Sure – but neither insane nor a smokescreen for Archie Bunker bigotry. A Stossel thinks he would win the debate. That is, he seeks a different path to the mountaintop – which would adhere to the lines of his political philosophy in the bargain.

Many, I know, will see me as missing something here or in some kind of denial – but I don’t see John as a racist on this one, despite that I would enjoy questioning him as to how he would feel if when I ran into him at an event I recounted having been asked to leave the neat new Italian place in Tribeca because they don’t serve “your kind.” (I have known Stossel “around” from when he was at ABC, and I suggest his latest book as proof that he’s too smart to be the morally benighted troglodyte he’s being tarred as.)

But in the end, isn’t all of this a little too hypothetical? The chances that businesses will be told that they can legally discriminate in America are dismissable, surely even to the most dedicated Cassandras among us. It is a sign of how far black people have come that an organization devoted to “amplifying the political voice of Black America” could think of musing over this kind of science fiction as serious work.

So someone says they don’t like part of the Civil Rights Act – upon which ... what? If you want to Fight the Power, fight something real, that has concrete effect on real people’s lives – and that is most certainly not burning people in effigy who criticize a done deal. “Political voice”? How about speaking up about the War on Drugs? Or what schools who seek Race To The Top funds will be doing to help poor kids learn? Or how green jobs could make a dent in unemployment rates for uneducated blacks? Or how jobs requiring no college will be growing in the near future right when the Obama Administration is dedicating extra funds to community colleges?

A typical response to a point like this is to ask why we can’t do it all – i.e. here, attend to things like that plus get off on monitoring Fox News for people who say things that “threaten Civil Rights” (but don’t). And the answer is that there are things that serve no purpose in what is supposed to be the goal in question.

Imagine someone who insists, while they make an omelette, upon also popping all of the bubbles on a sheet of bubble paper. “Why can’t I do both things?” he asks. And boy, does it feel good to pop those bubbles – it almost channels the life force and it makes a delicious noise. Especially compared to making the omelette, which is a rather quiet thing of little drama. But once the bubbles are all popped, all he has is a flabby sheet of plastic that he throws away and forgets. And really, wouldn’t he be in a position to make a better omelette if he just took a deep breath and put the bubble paper aside?

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