When it comes to actually addressing social injustice, we exhaust our will standing on ceremonies and media dust storms. We breathe fire about high-profile stories of indignation as if we could do no wrong, praise the valor of social pioneers as if it were a trait of our common spirit, then admire the trueness of our moral compass and stop there. As Bill Maher once said about flag waving, it really is the least we can do.
Three days before Major League Baseball celebrated the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut on April 15, CBS dismissed Don Imus from his nationally syndicated radio program in response to public outrage and bailing sponsorships. Though it took a while, Imus fell with his bizarre emission of bigotry against black college kids trying in good conscience to make a constructive start in life.
Without date checking for such outbreaks of racial tempest, one intuits that they occur at fairly regular intervals, and the responses are no less regular or predictable. One can surf the cable news and sports channels evenly over a period of three minutes and count on hearing the word "insensitive" at least a half-dozen times amid proposals that some offender should burn in hell or at least lose his job. In defense of the offender is often heard the word "hypocrisy," since the offender offends the offended in terms the offended use on themselves.
Throughout these quarrelsome effusions, we're supposed to believe we've "opened a national dialogue" and therefore are doing something important and useful. At best, we raise a good question or two. At worst, we ignore the obvious answers, fearing they'll raise deeper questions with answers we don't want to accept.
In the end, then, these discussions are entirely diversionary and largely disingenuous. Which is why they occur again and again.
From the notion that name-calling signals a discriminatory attitude, it doesn't follow that opposition to name-calling signals an egalitarian attitude.
To take one well-known policymaker, consider the President of the United States, George W. Bush. Long before the public turned against Bush for his ridiculously conceived and poorly executed war in Iraq, he assembled, perhaps, the worst civil rights record of any president since James Buchanan. A 2004 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said the Bush administration's policies "have retreated from long-established civil rights promises."
By numerous accounts, Bush's political appointees to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice have routinely subverted the division's historic role in upholding civil rights, ignoring and running off long-standing professional staff. In July 2006, The Boston Globe reported that "Only 19 of the 45 lawyers hired since 2003 in (three sections of the Civil Rights Division) were experienced in civil rights law, and of those, nine gained their experience either by defending employers against discrimination lawsuits or by fighting against race-conscious policies."
Meanwhile, a Republican Congress elected by the voters did nothing. Until November 2006, the Senate Judiciary Committee went four years since its last oversight hearing on the Civil Rights Division, according to the progressive Center for American Progress.
The Washington Post reported that Bush reduced the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) staff 19 percent from 2001 to 2006, defanging an office that investigates employment discrimination.
Of Bush's first 200 federal judicial appointments, only 15 were African Americans, and critics are certain that those few are hostile to civil rights. Former President Bill Clinton named 61 African Americans among his 373 judicial appointments.
The list goes on, and that's not even to enumerate Bush's more infamous affairs involving judges and prosecutors that demonstrate little presidential care for enforcing civil rights, to put it mildly. Nor is it to multiply Bush by thousands of elected officials across the country who feel the same way.
This country voted twice for Bush and thousands of times for the others. During the 2004 election, Bush's civil rights record barely entered the debate. How can we feign sincerity about social cohesion by complaining about Imus and, say, Marge Schott when we don't even bring up the president's civil rights record during an election?
By about 1970, the civil rights movement and Great Society programs began to work against a legacy of voter discrimination, red-lining, urban renewal and eminent domain, the last three of which tore apart functioning enclaves of African Americans and put them in high-rise slums.
But liberals pushed too hard, guilt-tripping blue-collar whites and making them swallow cross-town school bussing. In addition, Jimmy Carter's economic policies failed and the country's self-confidence fell to Iranian hostage takers at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Southern and blue-collar whites turned in 1980 to Ronald Reagan. Thus began a long civil rights backslide and new electoral majority forged with Reagan Democrats, who have since become Republicans.
Along with cutting social programs so he could lower taxes for the wealthy and a willingness to suppress inflation by maintaining high unemployment, Reagan's draconian war on drugs and its explosion of prison construction intensified a violent drug market while landing disproportionate numbers of African Americans in the can for offenses murderous and petty.
It certainly is indicative of a human being's meager personality when he lacks the moral imagination to redress wrongs and foibles in any other terms than those of punition and vindictiveness. When an entire society is thusly destitute, we shouldn't be stunned by ugly outcomes.
We just love to throw people into the hole rather than fix the problem. This is what we get.
Sadly, many African Americans wind up embracing a destructive prison culture replete with casual gunfire, vulgar misogyny, a predatory orientation to life and Rap musicians whose desperate anger is rewarded largely by the patronage of white kids in the suburbs who have little idea where it comes from. Next thing you know, the gangsta slang seeps into the mainstream until, finally, Don Imus thinks it's cute to characterize the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos." And then off we go on another abjectly shallow moral crusade.
In the context of the latest crusade, we asked, "Why, 60 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, are we still having to discuss matters like this?"
It's because we don't want to do the real work or make the real sacrifices. We'd rather talk about matters like this.
It fools whites into believing they've done something on behalf of minorities. It fools blacks, particularly media opportunists like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, into thinking they've sent an important message and busted another bigot, but it also confirms their rage while taking not one step toward rejecting the illusion of glitzy thuggery that too often passes for prosperity.
Talk is cheap. That's why we do it.