The goal of the civil-rights movement was opportunity—not a 'post-racial' society.
By John McWhorter
August 27, 2013
On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we will hear a good deal about how life in this country for black Americans has not changed as much as Martin Luther King Jr. might have wished. We will hear little to nothing about the role that certain strains of black progressive ideology have played in delaying the realization of King's dream.
"It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro," King announced from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963. He was right, and America knew it. The following year, segregation was outlawed with the Civil Rights Act. The year after, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
It is easy to forget what an awesome moral landmark it was for an oppressed group to force the larger society to outlaw barriers to its success. But the victory of the 1964 and 1965 laws had an even greater impact than prohibiting segregation and racial discrimination in voter registration: It changed the culture. Personal racist sentiment rapidly became socially proscribed. The Norman Lear sitcoms of the early 1970s, in which bigoted whites were regularly held up to ridicule, would have been unthinkable just 10 years before.
But "the struggle," as civil-rights veterans term the fight against racial discrimination, was hardly over. Practices and attitudes change slowly. As a black man, I can attest that as late as 1986 I was transparently denied a summer job at a restaurant in New Jersey simply because of my skin color.
However, in the decades since the March on Washington, black America has been taken on a detour by too many self-described progressive black thinkers and leaders, whose quixotic psycho-social experiment they disguise as a continuation of the civil-rights movement. With segregation illegal and public racism considered a moral outrage, we black Americans are now told that we will not truly overcome until Americans don't even harbor private racist sentiment, until race plays not even a subtle role in America's social fabric.
In other words, our current battle is no longer against segregation or bigotry but "racism" of the kind that can be revealed only by psychological experiments and statistical studies.
This battle is as futile as seeking a world without germs. "We have come to the nation's capital to cash a check," King said. But the preacher was talking about being freed from "the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination"—not asking whether Americans are aware of skin color or are more likely to associate black faces with negative words in an experiment.
Along these lines, the term "institutional racism," which the Black Power movement injected into the lexicon in the late 1960s, is more damaging to the black psyche than the n-word or any crude jokes about plantations or food stamps. The term encourages blacks to think of society—in which inequality, while real, is complex and faceless—as actively and reprehensibly racist in the same way that Archie Bunker was. The result is visceral bitterness toward something that can't feel or think.
Equally distracting is the notion that America needs a "conversation" about race, one in which whites submit to a lesson from blacks about so-called institutional racism. "Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening," King told us in his speech. What we awaken to now is the rudeness of idle talk, of those who blow off steam by demanding a "conversation" that will not bear fruit—look no further than President Clinton's national effort on that front in the late 1990s—and in any case wouldn't provide greater opportunity to any poor person.
The "conversation" idea is fundamentally passive because it assumes that what black people need most is for white people to think better of them and more about them. So why does it command such allegiance among blacks? Because it channels the idea that our most urgent task is to speak truth to power, rather than to help black people who need it. Too many suppose that the two tasks are still the same as they were in 1963, when the reality is now quite different.
The "conversation" illusion is also why black America is more disturbed by whites killing blacks than by blacks killing blacks. Commentators who claim that black leaders ignore black-on-black crime miss the fact that black communities have long organized Stop the Violence forums to get citizens involved in stopping crime in their neighborhoods. Yet many black people are indeed angrier at one George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin than at the thousands of black boys who murder one another year after year. This is because we have been taught that our main task is uncovering racism rather than concretely addressing the things that make life hardest for the most blacks.
Today's struggle should focus on three priorities. First, the war on drugs, a policy that unnecessarily tears apart black families and neighborhoods. Second, community colleges and vocational education, which are invaluable in helping black Americans get ahead. And third, the AIDS and obesity epidemics, which are ravaging black communities.
The only reason why ideas like "institutional racism" and "a conversation about race" seem more compelling is because they are more morally dramatic. Drama is not what will make a difference in black lives.
"We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream," King said. But if justice is an America without racism of any kind, then we will never be satisfied.
Too many blacks seem to have internalized just that: The essence of contemporary blackness in America is eternal indignation. Notice, for example, the fire-breathing hostility that against-the-grain black writers attract from other blacks. As I know from personal experience, these writers are accused of tempting whites into some kind of antiblack backlash.
Instead, in recent years, the black middle class has flourished. Housing segregation for blacks is the lowest it has been since the 1920s. And a black president has been elected twice. Yet the fury persists, since what actually rankles these critics is the threat to what they feel is their very identity: underdogs with a bone to pick.
This is not where the March on Washington was pointing us. There is work left, but we are free at last. No, we aren't living in a "post-racial" America, but that fantasy will never be realized. What we black Americans are free to do, in a permanently imperfect world, is shape our own destiny together.
In 2013, how white people feel about us has nothing to do with that task. Only by facing that reality will we truly honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
Mr. McWhorter teaches linguistics and American Studies at Columbia University. He is a contributing editor at the New Republic and columnist for Time magazine.