Extension of Steele-Shelby Steele on the Civil Rights Movement – Towards the individual as the unit of freedom


This video was produced by the Hoover Institution in conjunction with New York City’s 92nd Street Y, Hoover Senior Fellow Shelby Steele, the Robert J. and Marion E. Oster Senior Fellow.  In it Shelby Steele describes how the civil rights movement veered off course after its greatest achievement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Acts of 1965. However, after its great success in securing individual freedom, Steele says the movement increasingly called for interventions from the government, which had the unintended effect of creating dependency, resentment, and an ongoing sense of victimization among black Americans.

In the first part of this video Mr. Steele says:

The Civil Rights Movement, I grew up in it, believed in it.  It was in those days, before the civil rights bill ’64, ’65 Voting Rights Act, one of the greatest moments in human history.  And, its focus was on the individual and freedom for the individual.  After around the mid ’60’s things began to change, and that’s when I think those movements went off the rail.  So, I think this movement that had started out in a very noble way was transformed by a kind of victory.

Very well said by Mr. Steele.

I was born the Monday following Bloody Sunday in Selma, so I don’t have an insider’s view to the change in the civil rights movement that Mr. Steele does, but I would like to take a stab at extending what Mr. Steele said in the following way, namely that at some point the civil rights movement did stop being about the achievement of individual civil rights, once that battle was largely won, the movement instead became about achieving the equality of communities and races.

This change in focus brings with it fundamental problems, one possible problem being that achieving equality of civil rights is fundamentally about achieving equality of opportunity, while equality of community and races is one of equality of outcome.  Equality of outcome as a goal risks balancing the outcome of one against the outcome of another in a  rather zero-sum way.  But, that’s not what I really want to talk about today.

What I am interested in today, though, is to extend Selby Steele’s observation that the changes in the civil rights movement in the late 1960’s was a shift away from the rights of the individual to collective equality which represented a redefinition of the basic unit of freedom from the individual to the group.

The natural and basic unit of liberty, of freedom, as recognized by our democratic Constitution is always the individual not a community, or a race – or any other group for that matter.  Citizens have civil rights to exercise in our system of government, groups don’t, groups are not citizens.  Political party’s for instance don’t have civil rights, they don’t really do anything but act as some kind of self-imposed, non-Constitutional intermediary between citizen and government in much the same way the beady-eyed-priest interposes himself between man and God, sometimes performing useful functions, ofttimes mucking up the relationship.

The notion of the equality of communities and races is an inherently abstract and possibly arbitrary notion because it isn’t tied directly to an individual citizen.  Individuals by their nature are potentially members of several overlapping, cooperating, or competing groups.  I’ll leave you to consider for yourself the myriad problems that immediate arise when group identity becomes an issue of civil rights, who decides what the groups are? who determines membership?  How do you arbitrate individuals with multiple group affiliations?  Eventually you start having to codify all of this into law.  Don’t like the Nuremberg Laws?  welcome to identity politics.

To inflate the unit of freedom to the community, the culture, or race is to reduce the individual’s freedom to a non-individual element of an non-human abstraction.  How can anyone be said to be free when your freedom is somehow calculated as some kind of a mathematical function of membership in several possible sets?  These sorts of communitarian ideals may have a strong superficial appeal, but a close analysis will show that the individual has less freedom and fewer rights as a result.

In fact, the concept of the equality of communities and races is fundamentally incompatible with our Constitution and the American idea that being a free American citizen is not about membership in a particular privileged: community, caste, class, culture, or race but a commitment to the ideal that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

~ Unræd

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