PRRAC Poverty & Race Research Action Council
Home About PRRAC Current Projects Publications Newsletters Resources Contact Us Support PRRAC Join Our Email List

"Civil Rights, Now & Then,"

by Julian Bond July/August 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

At the turn of the century, the great scholar and activist W. E. B. DuBois predicted that "the problem of the 20th Century will be the problem of the color line." Not only was he right, but short years away from the century's end, one regrettably may conclude that it will also be the problem of the century yet to follow.

This is a time when the leadership of the House and Senate is more hostile to civil rights than in recent memory. On a civil rights report card prepared by the NAACP - with 100% as a perfect score - they fail, averaging 21% in the House and 36% in the Senate.

It is also the aftermath of Supreme Court decisions sharply attacking affirmative action, limiting the scope of the Court's historic 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and restricting the Voting Rights Act, and in a climate in which trashing affirmative action substitutes for dialogue on race.

In the current formulation, it is black people who hold the key to racial progress, but the door to justice is double-locked. White people keep their key in their pockets, and many deny that they have a key at all.

We are in the dark shadow of Denny's and Texaco, of Hopwood in Texas and California's Proposition 209. Everywhere we see clear racial fault lines which divide American society as much now as at any time in our past....

Some Bright Spots

The picture we see is not without its brighter side. Taken over several decades rather than in snapshot moments, our portrait shows clear progress throughout this century. No more do signs read "white" and "colored." The voters' booth and schoolhouse door now swing open for everyone, no longer closed to those whose skins are dark. Despite popular thinking to the contrary, the battle to preserve affirmative action is being won, not lost. Nearly 20 states have tried to place anti-fairness referenda on their ballots, and all but two have failed. The two which succeeded did so by deceiving the public: in California 27% of voters said they thought a vote for Proposition 209 was a vote for civil rights; early polls show some voters think the same of Washington State's 209 copycat, Initiative 200.

Three times so far this year - in March, April and May - the Congress has voted on affirmative action measures, and three times bipartisan majorities have voted to keep vital protections for minorities and women.


But for many, despite the successes, today's civil rights scene must seem like an echo of the past....

Many stand now in reflection of that earlier movement's successes, confused about what the next steps should be. The task ahead is enormous - equal to if not greater than the job already done....

Today we are three decades past the second Reconstruction, the modern movement for civil rights that eliminated legal segregation in the United States, and 13 decades past the first Reconstruction, the single period in American history in which the national government used armed might to enforce the civil rights of black Americans.

Then, as now, scientific racism and social Darwinism were in vogue. Then, as now, a race-weary nation decided these problems could be best solved if left to the individual states. Then, as now, racist demagogues walked the land. Then, as now, minorities and immigrants became scapegoats for real and imagined economic distress.

Then a reign of state-sanctioned and private terror, including ritual human sacrifice, swept across the South to reinforce white supremacy. That's when the heavy hand of racial segregation descended across the South, a cotton curtain that separated blacks from education, from opportunity, but not from hope....

As we recall the struggles of the recent past, many of us are confused about what the movement's aims and
goals were, what it accomplished and where it failed, and what our responsibilities are to complete its unfinished business today....

The movement's origins were in a bitter struggle for elementary civil rights, but it Largely became, in the post-segregation era, a movement for political and economic power, and today black women and men hold office and wield power in numbers we only dreamed of before.

But despite impressive increases in the numbers of black people holding public office, despite our ability to sit and eat and ride and vote and attend school in places that used to bar black faces, in some important ways non-white Americans face problems more difficult to attack today than in the years that went before.

The 1960s-1980s

Much of the origins of today's distresses are found in the recent past and came to climax in the 1980s.

Over time, opposition to government, especially Washington government, succeeded opposition to Communism as a secular religion. The United Nations, Washington bureaucrats, gays and lesbians and supporters of minority and women's rights replaced the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire. and together, these became the energies driving the callous coalition that captured Congress in 1994.

As long ago as 1964, Republicans had begun to remake their party as the white people's party, and they found a winning formula at the intersection of race and opposition to activist government. For much of the 1980s, America was presided over by an amiable ideologue whose sole intent was removing government from every aspect of our lives. He brought to power a band of financial and ideological profiteers who descended on the nation's capital like a crazed swarm of right-wing locusts, bent on destroying the rules and laws that protected our people from poisoned air and water and from greed. But nowhere was their assault on the rule of law so great as in their attempt to subvert, ignore, defy and destroy the laws that required an America that is bias-free.

And today, thanks to judicial appointments by Presidents Reagan and Bush, the greatest threat to affirmative action comes from the courts - not, as the media would have us believe, from the anti-affirmative action preferences of the people.

Then, as now, they unleashed a gang of financial sociopaths to raid and ravage the national treasury.

Then, as now, they forced a form of triage economics upon us. Then it produced the first increase in infant mortality rates in 20 years and pushed thousands of poor and working poor Americans deeper into poverty.

By the mid-'80s, the Census Bureau reported that the number of Americans living in poverty had increased over the previous four years by nine million, the biggest increase since these statistics were first collected over two decades ago. In the late 1960s, three-quarters of all black men were working; by the end of the 1980s, only 57% had a job.

Today's Conditions

Today, a significant portion of our population faces permanent privation, with the percentage of people living in poverty growing from 12.8 to 13.7% between 1989 and 1996.

Although we hear a lot these days about how well our economy is doing we don't hear much about how poorly the average person does. Between 1990 and 1995, median family income actually declined while the number of people with a net worth over $1 million more than doubled.

The United States today is the most economically stratified of all industrial nations, the gap between rich and poor larger than in Britain, Italy, Canada, Germany, France, Finland - greater and rising faster than anywhere else.

Those years then were what these years now promise to be - a kind of festive party, thrown for America's rich.

Since 1979, the wages of the bottom 20% of workers have dropped nearly 12%.... Workers at the bottom half of the wage scale make 75 cents less per hour than they did 20 years ago.

This at a time when the average executive earns 220 times what the average production worker is paid.

And for those workers whose skins are black or brown, the gap is greater and their prospects bleaker. Today, the net financial assets of black families in which one member has a post-graduate degree are lower than the assets of white families in which the highest level of education achieved is elementary school.

In 1968, the Kerner Commission, appointed by President Johnson to investigate the causes and prescribe the cures for 1967's riots, concluded that "white racism" was the single most important cause of continued racial inequality in income, housing, employment, education and life chances between blacks and whites.

Within a few short years, the growing numbers of blacks and other minorities and women, pushing for entry into and power in the academy, the media, business, government and other traditionally white male institutions, created a backlash in the discourse over race. The previously privileged majority exploded in angry resentment at having to share space with the formerly excluded.

Opinion leaders began to reformulate and redefine the terms of the discussion. No longer was the Kerner Commission's description of the problem acceptable.

Any indictment of white America could be abandoned, and a Susan Smith defense was adopted - black people did it, did it to the country, did it to themselves. Black behavior - not white racism - became the reason why whites and blacks lived in separate worlds. Racism retreated and pathology advanced. The burden of racial problem-solving shifted from racism's creators to its victims. The failure of the lesser breeds to enjoy society's fruits became their fault alone. In a kind of nonsensical tautology we heard again and again: these people are poor because they are pathological, they are pathological because they are poor.

Pressure for additional civil rights laws became special pleading. America's most privileged population, white men, suddenly became a victim class. Aggressive blacks and pushy women became responsible for America's demise.

All this occurred despite almost daily incidents of racial attack, and a series of public opinion polls that demonstrate most white Americans believe racial minorities are less than equal human beings, lacking in thrift, morality, industriousness and patriotism.

Most Americans don't just believe minorities are suspect; they believe there are more of them than there actually are.

According to a Gallup Poll, the average American thinks that 18% of all Americans are Jewish; the real figure is 3 %. The average American thinks that 21% of all Americans are Hispanic; the exact number is 8%; most Americans think that 32% of all Americans are black; the real figure, of course, is 12%.

For the average American, then, minorities are the majority: 71% of the national population.

The New Racism

This exaggeration of the other, this blame-shifting and role-reversal, where victim becomes perpetrator and minorities become majorities, this perversion of reality occurred as a result of an organized campaign which continues until this day.

It is led by a curious mix of whites and a few blacks, academics, journalists and policymakers. Its aim is the demobilization of effective insurgent politics, the depoliticizing of discussions of our gross maldistribution of income, and the adoption of reactionary and punitive social policy.

Its adherents profess strong support for equal rights while opposing every tool designed to achieve this goal. They attack and discredit affirmative action, not simply because it threatens ancient white-skin privilege, but because it serves as a handy symbol of despised government intervention, and feeds the myths of black-caused white disadvantage.

For these new racists, equal opportunity is a burden society cannot afford to bear. Their less than subtle message is that including blacks and women excludes quality.

The continuing disparity between black and white life chances isn't a result of black life choices; it stems from epidemic racism and an economic system dependent on class division.

Abundant scholarship notwithstanding, there is no other possible explanation - not family breakdown, not lack of middle-class values, not lack of education and skills, not absence of role models. These are symptoms. Racism is the cause; its elimination is the cure.

But racism was no rationale for bad behavior even when it legitimized slavery and made people property; it ought be no excuse for anyone's failure to strive to live with decency now.

We must be careful not to define the ideology and practice of white supremacy too narrowly. It is greater than scrawled graffiti and individual indignity, the policeman's nightstick, the job or home or education denied. It is rooted deeply in the logic of our market system, in the culturally defined and politically enforced prices paid for different units of labor, and it is deeply entrenched in our national psyche.

Black Political Gains

The strategies of the 1960s movement were litigation, organization, mobilization and civil disobedience, aimed at creating a national political constituency for civil rights advances.

In the 1970s, electoral strategies began to dominate, prompted by the increase in black votes engendered by the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The numbers of locally elected black officials multiplied, coinciding with a decline in political party organization, and, for many, the number of black voters sufficient to elect them became voters enough.

Forgotten in the wave of inaugurations of new black mayors was the plight of blue-collar blacks. Just as black workers began to win access to industrial jobs and organized labor, the jobs went offshore and labor declined in power and influence. President Nixon's plan to promote black capitalism as a cure for underdeveloped ghettoes was embraced by a growing generation of politically-connected black entrepreneurs, and their cause gained ascendancy.

Some black elites joined white elites at the feeding trough.

Since the heady days of the 1960s, too many have concentrated too much on enriching too few, while the large numbers of working-class black Americans, like their counterparts in the larger society, have seen their plight ignored, their incomes shrink and their jobs disappear.

Martin Luther King lost his life supporting a garbage workers' strike in Memphis; the right to decent work at decent pay remains as basic to human freedom as the right to vote.

"Negroes," King said in 1961, "are almost entirely a working people. There are pitifully few Negro millionaires and few Negro employers."

That there are more black millionaires today is a tribute to the movement King led; that there are proportionately fewer blacks working today is an indictment of our times and our economic system, a reflection of our failure to keep the movement coming on.

Everywhere black Americans face conditions different from but just as daunting as the bus back seats, fire hoses and billy clubs of three decades ago.

On streets and sidewalks where many black Americans live, crime and violence are a frequent rule. As angry white men blow up buildings, angry black men blow each other away. These are not drive-by shootings or stranger shooting stranger; in most of these deaths, the killer and the victim knew each other. These are friend shooting friend.

Black Children

In America today, compared with a white child, a black child is one and a half times more likely to grow up in a family whose head did not finish high school.

That child is two times as likely to be born to a teenage mother.

That child is two and a half times more likely to be born at low birthweight.

That child is three times more likely to live in a single-parent home.

That child is four times more likely to have a mother who had no prenatal care.

That child is four and a half times more likely to live with neither parent.

That child is five times as likely to depend solely on a mother's earnings.

That child is nine times as likely to be a victim of homicide as a teenager or young adult, the end of a long, winding, uphill struggle to beat the racial odds against success.

In life chances, life expectancy, median income - by all the standards by which life is measured - black Americans see a deep gulf between the American dream and the reality of their lives.

Affirmative Action

For the last 30 years - the period of the second Reconstruction - the most effective tool for advancing entry into the mainstream of American life has been affirmative action.

Opponents now try to tell us that it doesn't work, or it used to work but it doesn't now and isn't needed now; when it does work, it only helps people who don't need it. Their real problem is that it does work, and despite limits, where it works, it works well.

These opponents argue that the beneficiaries of race-centered affirmative action are "profiting" from it, as if its goals were comparable to an investment shared by a greedy few, a subtribe of dusky Donald Trumps and ebony Ivan Boeskys trading up life's ladder.

There is never "profit" in receiving right treatment. Receiving rights others already enjoy is no benefit or badge of privilege; it is the natural order of things in a democratic society.

Affirmative action really isn't about preferential treatment for blacks; it is about removing preferential treatment whites have received through history, giving equal treatment to people who were denied equality in the past.

Affirmative action isn't a poverty program, and ought not be blamed for failing to solve problems it was not designed to solve. It is a program designed to counter racial discrimination, not poverty. No one beat Rodney King because he was poor.

Affirmative action created the sizeable middle class that constitutes one-third of all black Americans today.

In the late 1960s, the wages of black women in the textile industry tripled. From 1970 until 1990, the number of black police officers more than doubled; the number of black electricians tripled and black bank tellers more than quadrupled. The percentage of blacks in managerial and technical jobs doubled. The number of black college students increased from 330,000 in the middle 1960s to more than one million 18 years later.

These are not just numbers. They represent the growth and spread of the tiny middle class I knew as a boy into a stable one-third of all black Americans today, black women and men with jobs and homes, productive tax-paying citizens, able to provide for their families now and in the future.
Without affirmative action, both white and blue collars around black necks would shrink, with a huge, depressive effect on black income, employment, home ownership and education.


This is because racism is alive and all too well in America. Those who would have us believe otherwise, and who argue for a return to a color-blind America that never was, who would have us believe that their opposition to affirmative action is rooted in a desire for fairness and equality, are engaged in justification, rationalization and downright prevarication. We have long heard these arguments from white racists - they are joined today by black self-haters and apologists too.

They are color-blind, all right - blind to the consequences of being the wrong color in America today.

Let me tell you what they say. It is the fourth quarter of a football game between the white team and the black team. The white team is ahead 145 to 3. The white team owns the ball, the field, the goalposts, the uniforms and the referees. They have been cheating since the game began. There are two minutes left to play. Suddenly the white quarterback, who feels badly about things that happened before he entered the game, says, "Can't we just play fair?"

But in the double-speak used by the opponents of affirmative action, "fair" doesn't mean fair.

They just won't quit. They argue that affirmative action stigmatizes all blacks, making black beneficiaries and all others feel as if they've received some benefit they do not deserve.

Do you ever hear that argument made about the millions of whites who got into college as a "legacy" because Dad is an alumnus? Or the whites who got good jobs because Dad was president of the company? You never see them walking around with heads held low, eyes hidden, moaning that they've lost their self-esteem because everyone in the executive washroom is whispering about how they got their job.

Today, white males are 92% of the United States Senate, 80% of the United States House, 90% of the nation's newspaper editors, and 80% of the tenured faculty at the nation's colleges and universities. I seriously doubt if any of these men are suffering low self-esteem or other stigma because their race and gender helped them win these positions.

Affirmative action's poster child, Justice Clarence Thomas, argues that affirmative action makes black people feel bad. If that is so, why would 95% of Houston's black voters elect to retain a policy that made them feel bad? But Thomas may be right. Ever since he got his most recent affirmative action job, he has been in a foul and nasty mood.

As quiet as it is kept, Martin Luther King supported affirmative action. The critics like to quote his dream from 1963 that one day his children would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.

It was a dream then; it is a dream now.

He said in 1963: "Whenever the issue of preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree: but he should ask for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic."

In 1967 he said: "A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him".

We tend today to look back on the King years with some nostalgia, as if those were the only years in which we were truly able to overcome.

Our inability to do so today is caused, at least in part, by the way we recall Dr. King. For most of us he is little more than an image seen in grainy black-and-white television film taken in Washington three decades ago, the gifted preacher who had a dream.

But King, of course, was much more than that, and the movement was much more than Martin Luther King....

We All Benefit

For too many people today, the fight for equal justice is a spectator sport, a kind of National Basketball Association in which all the players are black and all the spectators are white.

But in this true-to-life competition between good and evil, the players are of every color and condition, the fate of all the fans tied to the points scored on the floor. When good prevails, all the spectators win too.

When four little girls died three decades ago in a Birmingham church bombing, astronaut Sally Ride won the right to shoot the moon.

Because black young people faced arrest at Southern lunch counters 30 years ago, the law their bodies wrote now protects older Americans from age discrimination, protects Jews and Moslems and Christians from religious discrimination, protects the disabled from exclusion because of their condition.

It took but one woman's courage to start a movement in Montgomery, the bravery of four young men in Greensboro to set the South on fire. Surely there are men and women, young and old, who today can do the same.

Now the ancient forces of evil, appearing in new faces, threaten America again. They are determined to create an anoretic America, too starved and weak to protect the hungry, the forgotten and the poor.

The current civil rights scene in the United States is dismal but not with-out hope....

My grandfather James Bond's words - from the last century - might well be remembered here.

He said in 1892:

"The pessimist from his corner looks out upon the world of wickedness and sin, and blinded by all that is good or hopeful in the condition and progress of the human race, bewails the present state of affairs and predicts woeful things for the future.

In every cloud he beholds a destructive storm, in every flash of lightning an omen of evil and in every shadow that falls across his path a lurking foe.

But he forgets that the clouds also bring life and hope, that the lightning purifies the atmosphere, that shadow and darkness prepare for sunshine and growth, and that hardships and adversity nerve the race, as the individual, for greater efforts and grander victories."

Greater efforts and grander victories. That was his generation's promise 106 years ago. That was the promise made by the generation that won the great world war for democracy five decades ago. That was the promise made by those who brought democracy to America's darkest corners three decades ago, and that is the promise we must seek to honor today.

Julian Bond is Board Chair of the NAACP and is Distinguished Professor in Residence at American University and a member of the University of Virginia‘s History Department faculty. He wrote the Preface to PRRAC’s book, Double Exposure: Poverty & Race in America.


Our friend Julian Bond, Board Chair of the NAACP, kindly allowed us to print an excerpt from his wonderfully eloquent, politically correct (let's take that phrase back from The Right) May 27 speech before the National Press Club. The original has footnote references supporting a number of facts he cites; if you'd like a copy of those references, send us a SASE.


Join Our Email List
Search for:             
Join Our Email List