April 6, 2008

Declining Civil Rights organizations

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I saw this article in the Washington Post. It's about the decline of civil rights organizations since the 1960's.

Even though the NAACP and CORE have done great things, I'm of the mindset that it might not be a bad thing if these organizations were to fold and allow new ones to take their place. They haven't done anything wrong, but new blood is a good thing, and if there is an older culture in place within an organization, it's sometimes hard to get new blood.

Roger Wilkins says it best:

The drop in stature may have been inevitable, said Roger Wilkins, an assistant attorney general under President Lyndon B. Johnson who advised the groups. "Black people didn't have opportunities in the '30s and '40s and '50s," he said. "They couldn't be mayors, so they became presidents of black colleges or leaders of civil rights organizations. But at the end of the '60s, all kinds of pathways opened up, and civil rights organizations had to compete for leadership."

Roger Wilkins is right. Things are different now. The nature of the fight is different, and the fights themselves are different. Minorities these days deal with subtle racism more than overt racism. Even MLK himself realized the upcoming change of tides when, towards the end of his life, he started speaking relatively more against the subtle racism of the north vs. the overt racism of the south.

The author of the article then continues:

With advances in education, employment and buying power, some have argued, civil rights organizations have become passe. But group leaders bristle at the notion.

A report released this week by the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think tank, said that black America remains troubled. Despite marginal advances in education and jobs, the income gap between black and white Americans has grown so large since King's death that it would take more than 500 years for black people to catch up under the current pace of change, the report said. The divide between black and white wealth is so wide that achieving parity would take more than 600 years.

The issue with civil rights organizations isn't that they don't care. It isn't that they don't want to fight for equality. The issue is that they are fighting a different kind of battle--one against subtle racism and self-hatred rather than an overtly racist legal system. The culture of these organizations, which was developed during the 30's, 40's, and 50's, has never developed the tools necessary to fight their modern enemy. They are fighting to stay relevant mostly because they have become irrelevant through changes in society.

While it is possible for these groups to change course, it is going to take a lot of work. How can you explain Jim Crowe to a minority culture which didn't grow up with Jim Crowe? To remain relevant, these civil rights organizations will require not just a simple change in tactics but an entire change in strategy and philosophy. Seeing how so many large organizations struggle with this kind of change, I wonder whether it might be easier to dissolve the old and start anew.

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