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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.