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Refocusing Civil Rights

Natalia J. Garland

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The concept of a racial or cultural minority is disappearing from American society. It is, after all, approximately 50 years since the Civil Rights Movement began under Martin Luther King, Jr. The reality is that the concept is no longer useful to describe racial, cultural, gender, or class distinctions. The disadvantages of these groups, as consequences of prejudice, have greatly decreased. Minorities continue to exist regarding the number of people, but not particularly regarding quality of life. Prejudice continues to have a negative impact on individuals rather than groups, although some groups live in communities in which there are certain education and employment hardships.

It seems, almost overnight, and yet it has been 50 years in the making, that we are reaping the harvest of the Civil Rights struggle. It has been said that the three major Democratic candidates for President of the United States, a black man, a woman, and a self-made white man, symbolize as well as actualize this harvest. The possibility of presidency, especially for a black man or a woman of any race, is the ultimate demonstration of equal opportunity. This should mark the official end of the Civil Rights era. In his South Carolina victory speech, Barack Obama said:

And what we've seen in these last weeks is that we’re also up against forces that are not the fault of any one campaign, but feed the habits that prevent us from being who we want to be as a nation. It's the politics that uses religion as a wedge, and patriotism as a bludgeon. A politics that tells us that we have to think, act, and even vote within the confines of the categories that supposedly define us. The assumption that young people are apathetic. The assumption that Republicans won't cross over. The assumption that the wealthy care nothing for the poor, and that the poor don't vote. The assumption that African-Americans can't support the white candidate; whites can't support the African-American candidate; blacks and Latinos can't come together.

But we are here tonight to say that this is not the America we believe in. I did not travel around this state over the last year and see a white South Carolina or a black South Carolina. I saw South Carolina.
[End of quotes.]

Habits, assumptions, politics. Whether or not Obama realizes it, his words seem to imply a completion of the Civil Rights Movement as well as his personal fulfillment within the Movement's purpose. Americans are now capable of coming together. In fact, it requires an instigator--someone to stir the old habits, the worn assumptions, and the divisive politics--to provoke hatred and persecution. Prejudice is no longer a state of mind, but a political tactic. This tactic is used not only by whites, but also by various other racial groups and leaders.

If minorities have largely ceased to exist as oppressed groups, and if the focus of prejudice has shifted from racial hatred to political manipulation, then it follows that Americans must re-evaluate the intentions of the current civil-rights advocacy organizations. These organizations were originally created to empower the persecuted or under-represented minorities of American society. Their focus was on health, education, economics, and justice. But, if minorities are no longer deprived of these essential rights and opportunities, then what is the purpose of racially-based advocacy organizations and activist coalitions?

The Congressional Black Caucus was formed in 1971, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in 1976. In those days, people did not own computers or have access to the internet and e-mail. Communication was slower and interaction was person-to-person. Minorities and mainstream society have since re-arranged relationships from segregation to integration, and are now speeding toward globalization. Today's children are the fruits of the Civil Rights Movement. Children study the evolution of American government in their history classes: including the struggles and contributions of minorities, and the importance of cultural heritages. As a result, they are much more aware of their rights than any previous generation. Is the current generation being advanced by the advocacy organizations?

The answer will become clearer as we look at the political composition and alliances of the Black Caucus and Hispanic Caucus. All their members are Democrat. On their website, the Hispanic Caucus links to the following organizations under their list of Resources: L.U.L.A.C., M.A.L.D.E.F., La Raza, the Pew Hispanic Center, and the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. It will be noted that the initial three organizations could be classified as hardcore liberal (perhaps radical) in their politics. The Hispanic Caucus supports comprehensive immigration reform, immigrant (presumably illegal immigrant) family re-unification, and the Dream Act.

Why are there no Republicans in the Hispanic Caucus? There was a schism in 1999, with the Republican members leaving and then forming the Congressional Hispanic Conference under the leadership of Senator Mel Martinez (a Cuban American). Why does the website of the Hispanic Caucus not link to C.I.S., F.A.I.R., or U.S. English? Why do they provide only one-sided information? Why not give Hispanics access to the opposing opinions and let people reach their own conclusions?

What is the assumption? It is assumed that all Hispanics, by virtue of being Hispanic or having Hispanic ancestry, should support illegal immigration. It is further assumed that illegal immigration is a matter of civil rights rather than border enforcement and national sovereignty. Besides the schism, there has been other strife within the Hispanic Caucus regarding the emphasis on Mexican rather than Hispanic advocacy, internal election procedures, and an accusation that the male chairman called a female member a "whore." Now, what is the habit? The Hispanic Caucus seems to stereotype Hispanic Americans as hardcore liberals, and also represents Hispanics who are not American citizens.

All the members of the Hispanic Caucus are of Hispanic descent. Likewise, all the members of the Black Caucus are African American. It was just one year ago that a white senator, Stephen I. Cohen, was discouraged (by Black Caucus members) from joining the Black Caucus. Cohen serves a population that is 60-percent African American. The same thing happened in 1975 when Representative Pete Stark was refused admission. Stark served a population that was around 50-percent African American, and most of his staff were African American. What is the assumption? It is assumed that white Americans cannot understand or appreciate black Americans. While that may have been true of many whites years ago, it is no longer true of our post-Civil Rights society. It is further assumed that blacks cannot objectively evaluate whether or not a white person is for or against them. What is the habit? The Black Caucus perpetuates an outdated, racially-based mode of advocacy.

Do these advocates continue to empower the oppressed, or are they elitists seeking raw political power while clinging to an ideological identity that has become dysfunctional? Perhaps some members simply lack awareness of their own assumptions and habits. Perhaps they have dedication but lack a contemporary vision of their purpose. If the Black Caucus and Hispanic Caucus ceased to exist, this might be felt as a difficult adjustment for its members but not felt as a loss by the African American and Hispanic American populations. It would mean that we are all Americans and that the melting-pot concept works best. Elitists would be divested of their organizational status, taxpayer funding, and legislative influence. American citizens would then relate to one another as free-thinking individuals.

How can we meet the needs of society in a post-Civil Rights era? Much problem-solving can be re-focused into categories other than race and culture (although women should remain in a gender category, and children and the elderly in age-appropriate categories). Americans from all backgrounds experience problems with employment, healthcare, and education at various levels of severity. Although race and culture may still be factors which need to be addressed within a historical and social context, this does not mean we should continue to focus on prejudice as the main causal condition. These areas could be approached as problems within systems or institutions.

For example, if a black student is doing poorly in school, then teachers must know how to target at-risk students in the early grades--before 9th grade at the very latest. Such students need to be assessed individually. Parents must also become involved in their child's education. This can be done regardless of race and culture. If educators, students, and parents came together for the purpose of education, this would release the child's unique potential, decrease his chances of substance abuse, and increase his ability to find a meaningful job when he graduates. If he qualifies for college scholarships or financial aid, again, this can be managed within the educator/child/parent relationship. This child could then grow up in an America where a black president or woman president would not be considered unusual. (Written 01/28/08: bibliography available.)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2008 Natalia J. Garland