In the 1960s, the civil-rights movement owed much of its momentum and power to a moral authority derived from historical circumstances. Most fair-minded Americans accepted the idea that African Americans' historical experience of discrimination justified legal and social redress.
By contrast, the addition of women, Latinos and Asians to the civil rights movement was more politics than morality. One consequence is that race lost its role as the primary determinant of a civil-rights claim. Another is that the uniqueness of the African American experience became obscured by the growing list of groups--including people aged 40 and older, gays and people with disabilities--granted protected minority status.
There is certainly no denying the potential political benefits of finding common cause among minorities, especially for small groups who can claim to be part of a larger coalition. But the rise of minority-coalition politics and the popularity of terms like "people of color" and organizations like the Rainbow Coalition have impeded the fight against inequality. The once morally grounded civil rights movement has degenerated into a victimization contest in which all groups feel aggrieved and seek redress. O.J. Simpson and soap-opera actress Hunter Tylo, two recent high-profile beneficiaries of civil rights-style legal defenses, have replaced Rosa Parks and Central High School students in civil-rights iconography. Instead of worrying about the poorest and most disenfranchised in American society, regardless of race, we have lost the moral imperative that drove the civil rights movement in the first place.
In part, the broadening of the civil-rights family is a natural consequence of intellectuals and activists from other minority groups imitating the successful tactics and strategies of black leaders. To promote redress, the Census Bureau releases demographic data to advocacy organizations so they can better demonstrate their constituents' needs when competing with other nonwhites for government grants and corporate donations. This has served to institutionalize civil-rights advocacy and strategy.
But the politicization of demography leads researchers and activists to interpret any wage and education gaps between whites and minorities as prima facie proof of discrimination. Accordingly, the distinction between immigrant poverty and that of multigenerational Americans is often blurred. Income and education levels for low-skilled, recently arrived Latino immigrants are routinely--and mistakenly--compared with those of U.S.-born whites to prove pervasive discrimination.
These kinds of comparisons mask the fact that different minorities face different biases and barriers and that each group has its own strengths to draw on in combating them. James P. Smith, a senior economist at Rand, weighed the progress of different American groups over generations. This longitudinal approach helps to sort out the role discrimination plays in impeding social and economic mobility.
Smith concluded that the African American experience cannot be compared to the immigrant experiences of Latinos and Asians. Compared with whites, African Americans, after 10 generations in America, still lag significantly behind in income and education achievement. Mexican Americans, by contrast, manage to close the education and income gap with whites after three generations. Asian Americans, on average, outperform whites in both education and income within one generation.
Not surprisingly, these differences carry over to housing and employment, critical issues in the civil-rights struggle. A 1992 survey of Los Angeles County home-loan mortgage data suggests that different groups have different rates of success in securing home loans. Middle-income Latino applicants had a slightly higher approval rate than middle-income whites. Asian Americans were the most likely of any group to get a loan. African Americans with similar income had the highest rate of rejection.
A similar pattern can be gleaned from employment data. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, blacks still file more job-discrimination cases than any other minority. Whites older than 40 are the second-most common complainants, followed by women. Agency data indicate that African Americans still face more discrimination than any other racial minority group. Despite the huge increase in the numbers of Latino and Asian Americans, there has not been a commensurate increase in the numbers of Latino and Asian complainants. In California, Latinos account for only 7% of all discrimination complaints filed.
To be sure, Asian and Latino immigrants are less likely to file such complaints for cultural reasons. But whatever the number of their discrimination complaints, it is still unclear whether they should be eligible for programs such as affirmative action, whose primary rationale has always been to redress historical injustices. The vast majority of Latino and Asian families arrived in the U.S. after passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act, when the kind of legal discrimination that blacks endured had already been banned.
In 1996, white voters overwhelmingly supported Proposition 209, which eliminated state-sponsored affirmative-action programs, because many felt the "playing field" had begun to tilt against them. Indeed, since nearly 80% of the U.S. labor force enjoy protected minority status, "minority policies" should be reconsidered. Even so, polls show that whites generally support programs that aim to remedy the effects of discrimination. But 209 passed.
The problem with the campaign against Proposition 209 was not only divisions among women, black and Latino groups, but also that their side lacked the moral heft that brought triumph to the civil rights movement. Treating all minorities as if they all possess an equivalent moral claim to affirmative action undermined the legitimacy of the anti-209 campaign.
Racism surely exists in America. But not all racism is discrimination. And not all prejudice is institutionalized. With anti-discrimination laws a permanent fixture of the U.S. legal system, and the civil rights agenda diluted and off course, it is time to reconsider our solutions to economic inequality.
Efforts to assist disadvantaged Americans should be based on class. As such, the definition of "disadvantaged" should pivot on poverty and hardship, not on one's ethnicity. Just as we cannot lump the experiences of all nonwhite people into one common fate, we cannot treat the experiences of a middle-class minority and a poor minority as comparable. The rise of large ethnic middle classes destroys any notion that all members of a given group face the same barriers.
Anchoring America's social agenda to class has the potential to reenergize our commitment to providing greater opportunity to disadvantaged Americans as well as putting moral authority back into the struggle for equal opportunity and fairness.