Law professor Richard Thompson Ford had a long and very interesting article in yesterday's Boston Globe arguing that the civil rights model is no longer adequate or appropriate to deal with American racial inequality. Here's his pitch:
Today's most serious racial injustices aren't caused by bias and bigotry; instead they stem from racial segregation and the many disadvantages that follow from living in isolated, economically depressed, and crime-ridden neighborhoods. These problems are a legacy of past racism, but not, by and large, the result of ongoing discrimination. Civil rights litigation and activism have hardly made a dent in these formidable obstacles. It's tempting to believe that we just need more of the same—that we've only been too timid in enforcing civil rights laws or too conservative in interpreting them. But the real problem is inherent in the civil rights approach itself: faced with racial inequities that are not caused by discrimination, civil rights law is impotent and civil rights activism too often a distraction from the real work we need to do.
What might this "real work" look like? Ford lists "job creation, more effective schools, better public infrastructure" as three essential reforms, though he turns a little coy when it comes to actual policy recommendations. For instance, he floats various "controversial" proposals—such as charter schools or Harvard sociologist William Julius Williams' idea to create a WPA-style make work agency for inner-city youths—but doesn't actually endorse any of them. It's mostly passive voice at that point: "some insist" on this or "there is fierce opposition" to that.
It's a frustratingly vague way to proceed, but it does help kick off some very important conversations. Take Ford's short passage dealing with the drug war. As he puts it, "Some insist that the war on drugs has become a quagmire and advocate decriminalization of some less dangerous drugs." This comes shortly after Ford correctly notes that many black neighborhoods have been ruined by failed policies. Well, it just so happens that the drug war is a prime example of those failed policies. And while it's a shame that Ford wouldn't say that to his Boston Globe readership, he did at least raise the issue. For a more direct and illuminating take, here's something David Simon, co-creator of The Wire, told Jesse Walker:
Ed Burns and I spoke at one of those [conservative] groups. There came this point where a guy said, "Well, what is the solution? Give me the paragraph; give me the lede. What's the solution, if not drug prohibition?"
I very painstakingly said: "Look. For 35 years, you've systematically deindustrialized these cities. You've rendered them inhospitable to the working class, economically. You have marginalized a certain percentage of your population, most of them minority, and placed them in a situation where the only viable economic engine in their hypersegregated neighborhoods is the drug trade. Then you've alienated them further by fighting this draconian war in their neighborhoods, and not being able to distinguish between friend or foe and between that which is truly dangerous or that which is just illegal. And you want to sit across the table from me and say 'What's the solution?' and get it in a paragraph? The solution is to undo the last 35 years, brick by brick. How long is that going to take? I don't know, but until you start it's only going to get worse."