It is now more than three decades since the historic Supreme Court decision on desegregation, Brown v. Board of Education. Thomas Sowell takes a tough, factual look at what has actually happened over these decades -- as distinguished from the hopes with which they began or the rhetoric with which they continue, Who has gained and who has lost? Which of the assumptions behind the civil rights revolution have stood the test of time and which have proven to be mistaken or even catastrophic to those who were supposed to be helped?
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About the Author
Thomas Sowell is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He has been a professor of economics at leading American colleges and universities, and has lectured in Singapore, Israel, Switzerland, and Germany, as well as across the United States.
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Rhetoric or Reality
The Civil Rights Vision
May 17, 1954 was a momentous day in the history of the United States, and perhaps of the world. Something happened that afternoon that was all too rare in human history. A great nation voluntarily acknowledged and repudiated its own oppression of part of its own people. The Supreme Court decision that day was announced in an atmosphere of high drama, and some observers said that one of the black-robed justices sat on the great bench with tears in his eyes.
Brown v. Board of Education was clearly much more than another legal case to go into the long dusty rows of volumes of court decisions. It represented a vision of man and of the world that touched many hearts across the land and around the world. The anger and rancor it immediately provoked also testified to its importance. In a larger historic context, that such an issue should reach the highest court in the land was itself remarkable. In how many places and in how many eras could an ordinary person from a despised race challenge the duly constituted authorities, force them to publicly defend their decisions, retreat, and finally capitulate?
Brown v. Board of Education may have been intended to close the door on an ugly chapter in American history, going back to slavery and including both petty and gross bigotry, blatant discrimination, and violence and terror extending all the way to brutal and sadistic lynchings. Yet it also opened a door to political, constitutional, and human crises. It was not simply a decision but the beginning of a revolution that has not yet run its course, but which has already shownthe classic symptoms of a revolution taking a very different path from that envisioned by those who set it in motion.
The civil rights revolution of the past generation has had wide ramifications among a growing variety of groups, and has changed not only the political landscape and social history of the United States, but has also altered the very concept of constitutional law and the role of courts.
Behind the many visible changes has been a change in the way the world is visualized. The civil rights vision is not only a moral vision of the way the world should be in the future, but also a cause-and-effect vision of the way the world is today. This cause-and-effect vision of the way the world works is central to understanding the particular direction of thrust of the civil rights revolution, its achievements, its disappointments, and its sharp changes in meaning that have split its supporters and confounded its critics.
It is far from incidental that the civil rights movement began among black Americans. The basic vision of what was wrong, and of what social effects would follow from what institutional changes, bore the clear imprint of the history of blacks in the United States, though the general principles arrived at were later applied successively to very different groups in American society to women and the aged, for example, as well as to such disparate racial and ethnic groups as Asians, Hispanics, and American Indians. It is now estimated that 70 percent of the American population is entitled to preferential treatment under "affirmative action."' The civil rights vision has even been extended internationally to the plight of the Third World and to racial policies in other nations, such as South Africa.
Ironically, the civil rights revolution began by emphasizing precisely what was unique about the history of black Americans slavery, Jim Crow laws, and some of the most virulent racism ever seen anywhere. But upon that very uniqueness, general principles of morality and causation were established. These principles constitute the civil rights vision of the world. The extent to which that vision corresponds to reality is crucial for understanding both the successes and failures of the civil rights revolution thus far, and for assessing its future prospects and dangers.
Special Cases and General Principles
Because civil rights laws and civil rights concepts are applied generally to both racial and non-racial groups their general validity must be examined. The special case of blacks can then be examined precisely as a special case.
One of the most central and most controversial premises of the civil rights vision is that statistical disparities in incomes, occupations, education, etc., represent moral inequities, and are caused by "society." Historically, it was easy to show, for example, that segregated white schools had had several times as much money spent per pupil as in segregated black schools and that this translated into large disparities in physical plant, teacher qualifications, and other indices of educational input. Large differences in educational output, such as test scores, seemed readily attributable to these input differences ...Civil Rights
Rhetoric or Reality. Copyright © by Thomas Sowell. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Table of Contents
|Chapter 1||The Civil Rights Vision||13|
|Chapter 2||From Equal Opportunity to "Affirmative Action"||37|
|Chapter 3||From School Desegregation to Busing||61|
|Chapter 4||The Special Case of Blacks||73|
|Chapter 5||The Special Case of Women||91|
|Chapter 6||Rhetoric or Reality?||109|
|Epilogue: The Degeneration of Racial Controversy||123|
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Written a while back, but still relevant. A devastating analysis of affirmative action and contemporary civil rights orthodoxy.
When heavy artillery is needed in the fight against collectivist propaganda, then it's time to wheel out Thomas Sowell. Now in his late seventies, this distinguished economist and political philosopher has devoted much of his career to combating the myths of political correctness.A prime example is his 1984 book, "Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality." In this monument to common sense, Sowell examines the disastrous turn in the American civil rights movement from equality of opportunity to equality of results.Equality of opportunity is represented by the landmark 1954 lawsuit, Brown v. Board of Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down racial segregation in the public schools. The spirit of equal opportunity also was present in the formulation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sowell brings several examples of Congressional sponsors of the bill (such as Hubert Humphrey) assuring their colleagues and the public that the legislation would not introduce quotas, preferences, or any other results-oriented mandate. The only target was to be intentional discrimination, and the burden of proof would be on the complainant.It did not take long, however, before the Supreme Court began its crusade to re-introduce racial considerations into education and other spheres of American life. In the 1968 case of Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, the Court ruled that a Virginia school district was in violation of the Brown decision because its schools were still either predominantly white or predominantly black--even though families now had the choice of sending their children to any school they desired. In other words, racial barriers had been dismantled, and equal opportunity was in force.But the results of the school district's new rules were not in keeping with the vision of Brown, said the Court. And thus the decision in Green paved the way for that great social catastrophe, the forced busing of children to achieve racial balance.Three years later, in 1971, we witness the advent of quotas, as the Department of Labor issued "goals and timetables" to"'increase materially the utilization of minorities and women'...Employers were required to confess to 'deficiencies in the utilization' of minorities and women whenever statistical parity could not be found in all job classifications, as a first step toward correcting this situation. The burden of proof--and remedy--was on the employer. 'Affirmative action' was now decisively transformed into a numerical concept, whether called 'goals' or 'quotas'."This approach was soon rubber-stamped by the Supreme Court in the Weber case, in which the Civil Rights Act was stretched and distorted to allow affirmative action as we now know it.All of this, asserts Sowell, was latent from the outset in the "civil rights vision of the world," which interprets statistical disparity as the work of discrimination and various "root causes." According to this view, the so-called under-representation of blacks (or women or Hispanics or the victim group du jour) in a given domain is ipso facto evidence of discrimination, regardless of the intent of the authority in question. If a department of physics at a major university does not have a single black faculty member, then racism is lurking somewhere, even if no qualified black person ever submitted a resume.Sowell thoroughly deconstructs the madness behind this obsession with statistical disparity and its endless harvest of victim claims. Aggregate statistics on income prove nothing about underlying causes. An ethnic group can be poor in conditions of complete equality, or well-to-do in conditions of extreme adversity. The émigré Chinese communities are a classic case. Says Sowell:"Throughout southeast Asia, for several centuries, the Chinese minority has been--and continues to be--the target of explicit, legalized discrimination in various occupations, in admission to institutions of higher learning, and suffers bans and restrictions on land ownersh