From dream to nightmare in 50 years

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the great civil rights march on Washington, some are reminding us that the rally — a march “for Jobs and Freedom” — wasn’t just about basic civil rights, but also about concrete economic demands. It’s a fair point. Historian William Jones notes that the demands of the march organizers included “federal jobs creation” and the raising of the minimum wage.

Not that there was a large perceived dichotomy between “freedom” and “jobs.” Most activists believed, I think, that if restrictions on black freedom — most notably in the spheres of education and employment — were abolished, jobs and economic success would follow for blacks. But the demands for government employment programs and a higher minimum wage show that there was a bit more to the movement than the quest for equality of treatment.

Note, however, that the purely economic demands — for more jobs programs and a higher minimum wage — were made on behalf of everyone, not just blacks. Poor and low-income whites would also receive jobs and/or have their hourly pay increased if these demands were met.

Indeed, none of the demands of the Great March could be said to entail discrimination against whites, to confer special privileges and benefits on blacks, or to exempt them from the standards that had been applied to whites.

Here are some the things that the march organizers did not demand, and might have been offended if asked to consider demanding:

The elimination or substantial modification of certain criminal laws, on the theory that blacks are convicted under such laws disproportionately more often than whites.

The modification of school disciplinary standards, on the theory that black students are disciplined disproportionately more often than whites.

The elimination or substantial modification of criminal background checks on applicants for employment, on the theory that, given the comparatively high rate of criminal convictions of blacks, the use of criminal background checks excludes blacks disproportionately.

The aggressive granting of preferential admission by colleges and universities to black students, on the theory that, without admitting blacks who would never be accepted if they were white, the better colleges and universities will have too few black students.

None of this was part of the stated agenda of the Great March, much less the dream Martin Luther King articulated to the huge crowd and to the nation. But all of these items form part of the modern civil rights movement’s agenda.

This agenda is a potential national nightmare. A nation, like an individual, will be only as virtuous and successful as its ability to set and attain high standards of conduct and achievement.

Standards are not set in stone and there may be good cause to change or even discard some of them. But the inability of a particular group to meet a standard to the same degree as another group does not constitute good cause.

Claims to the contrary jeopardize our national virtue and success. I doubt that this is what Dr. King wanted.

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