When the U.S. Supreme Court last summer issued a series of rulings on civil-rights issues, an apoplectic Benjamin Hooks, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, threatened "civil disobedience on a mass scale that has never been seen in this country before."
But Hooks couldn't deliver. When the NAACP and its allies were unable to generate enthusiasm among their members, they downsized an announced rally to protest the Court's rulings from a "mass march on Washington" to a "silent vigil." The event barely registered a blip in the evening news.
This failure of mainstream blacks to follow their media-anointed leaders was only the latest evidence of a growing gulf between establishment civil-rights groups and the people they claim to represent. Surveys repeatedly show that blacks in general differ markedly with civil-rights leaders in their views on such issues as forced busing, racial preferences, and capital punishment. The NAACP has been leaking members like a sieve—particularly young blacks who increasingly view civil-rights groups as irrelevant to their needs.
The civil-rights groups are responding to the revolt in the only way they know how: by demanding yet another civil-rights law. In fact, the so-called Civil Rights Act of 1990 is the most sweeping civil-rights legislation in a quarter century.
Sen. Ted Kennedy (D–Mass.), the bill's main sponsor, claims that the law will merely "overturn these Court decisions and restore and strengthen" civil-rights laws. But in overturning the Court's decisions, the bill would accomplish a complete transformation of the meaning of civil rights from those basic rights we all share equally as Americans into special privileges for some and burdens for others.
In its landmark decision in Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio, the Supreme Court rejected the presumption that any significant differences in outcome among groups is attributable to discrimination and curable only by coercive race-conscious measures. It acknowledged that statistical disparities may imply discrimination but held that the burden remains with plaintiffs to prove that such disparities were actually caused by discrimination.
The Kennedy bill would shift this burden, requiring that employers defend themselves against statistics-based discrimination challenges by proving that their policies are "essential" to job performance. This standard has proved impossible to satisfy in courts that applied it in the past, leading businesses to adopt quotas to avoid litigation—precisely the effect the bill's supporters desire.
Even as the bill moves toward probable passage, however, the civil-rights establishment's intellectual underpinnings and popular support are rapidly eroding. Liberal University of Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson observes that race-conscious measures have aided well-qualified minorities but have not helped the truly disadvantaged, who lack the skills and mobility necessary to take advantage of opportunities.
By focusing on discrimination as the primary factor affecting black outcomes, Wilson argues, the "equal outcome" agenda divides Americans along racial lines and does nothing to solve the problems of educational deficiency, welfare dependency, and isolation that plague the largely black "underclass."
Meanwhile, activists at the grassroots level are bypassing the civil-rights establishment. Returning to the traditional civil-rights objective of individual empowerment, these activists have set their sights on such barriers to opportunity as the public school monopoly, restrictions of entry into businesses and professions, the welfare system, and crime.
Empowerment activism is perhaps best exemplified by Polly Williams, a state legislator who served as Wisconsin coordinator for Jesse Jackson's presidential campaigns. Earlier this year, Williams won approval of a voucher program to allow Milwaukee youngsters to attend the public or private school of their choice. The plan was opposed by white liberals and the American Civil Liberties Union.
"They say they're liberal," charges Williams, "but when it came to empowering black people, they stab us in the back. We want self-determination, not handouts and dependency."
The Polly Williamses of the world have a long way to go before they can dislodge recently developed conventional wisdom on civil-rights issues. But their emergence may provide an important breakthrough in fulfilling at last America's commitment to liberty and opportunity for all.
Clint Bolick is director of the Landmark Legal Foundation Center for Civil Rights and author of Unfinished Business: A Civil Rights Strategy for America's Third Century (Pacific Research Institute).
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Civil Rights: Fight the Power".