January 22, 2012


Richard Thompson Ford, Rights Gone Wrong: How Law Corrupts the Struggle for Equality (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011) ("Civil rights activism today suffers from a debilitating combination of nostalgia, narcissism and false solidarity. Nostalgia leads civil rights activists to analyze and attack contemporary racial problems--of which there are many--with the tactics of the past. But today's most severe racial problems are different from those of the past, even if they are continuous with historical injustices. . . . Without a discrete and conspicuous target, much of today's civil rights protest comes off as both shrill and aimless, in stark contrast to the heroic struggles of the mid-twentieth century, where civil rights activism was resolute and focused." "Narcissism poisons civil rights activism by elevating drama and spectacle over practical results. Many of the solutions to today's social injustices will require wonkish policy intervention, frustrating compromises, and tedious negotiations with government, businesses, and other orgnanizations. Instead of the high drama of the Freedom Summers . . . , we face a long, slow winter of institutional reform. The real legatees of the civil rights movement will learn to wield power rather than fight it; cooperate with businesses more often than boycott or sue them; run for office rather than march on the capital. Sustained institutional change offers few resounding victories and fewer opportunities for conspicuous heroism. One must be satisfied with the steady accumulation of modest improvements." "False solidarity obscures the real stakes of social conflicts and allows opportunists with weak moral claims to ride the coattails of the truly deserving. Racists may not make fine distinctions within racial groups, but many of the most debilitating racial disadvantages do. The acculturated and the privileged can avoid much of the toxic legacy of past discrimination. The racial disadvantaged faced by the privileged is different in kind--not just in degree--from that faced by the poor, who must struggle against social isolation, dysfunctional public institutions, counterproductive socialization, high crime, and the resulting psychological despair. . . . The false solidarity that fixates on an imagined common enemy even as actual menaces become more and more diverse has preempted genuine solidarity based o a shared history and humane compassion. True solidarity requires empathy, not identification, Not coincidentally we need a similar empathy among citizens, regardless of race, in order to address our most persistent social injustices." Id. at 206-207. This book is nontechnical and addressed to a educated (but not necessarily in law) readers. I am not sure the arguments are tight, but the dots are more or less loosely connected. Note: On black solidarity, see my post date 10/29/2011. Also see Jeffrey Rosen, "Defining 'Equal'," NYT Book Review, Sunday, 11/13/11.).