Rethinking Civil Rights

I was recently on a radio program commenting about the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down Arizona’s law requiring proof of citizenship when people register to vote. One caller seemed quite happy with the decision because, it seemed, he believed there is widespread racism. I responded that those who make such allegations are bound to provide some evidence, and of course he didn’t and moved on to other comments. He didn’t even seem to think it necessary to explain why the simple act of requiring such proof, since one has to be a citizen to vote, constituted racism. Indeed, when I suggested that he ought to explain what he means by “racism,” he didn’t address that either. This brief episode illustrates a problem that has been around for sometime: All too many see racism, sexism, homophobia, or some other kind of socially condemned discrimination as ubiquitous, as the cause of a whole host of ills. It is, of course, the basis for a “civil rights” mentality that easily becomes the basis for civil wrongs.

We are all aware of America’s past: slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, voter disenfranchisement. One cannot say that our history has been entirely exemplary. We don’t live in the past, however, but in the present and we have to accept the realities as they now are. Of course, there are present cases of unjust discrimination. To claim, however, that this is an era any way comparable to Jim Crow is simply preposterous and often done for crass political advantage—like when the Tea Party movement is accused of racism for defending traditional constitutional principles. Such claims as racism are also used to ignore serious policy deficiencies that actually often have the effect of damaging the dignity of groups they aim to help, as in the case of fostering government dependency and the consequent stifling of personal initiative.

Serious racial incidents and outrages against other groups are seldom officially generated, as in past times, but are perpetrated by fringe white supremacists and criminal hooligans as in the James Byrd, Jr. and Matthew Shepard cases. Moreover, our supposed civil rights spokesmen—usually either self-appointed or leaders of some interest group—seldom comment about the discrimination against groups that cannot claim the status of “protected.” This is what we see with affirmative action and outright quotas, as well as in the myriad cases of employers, teachers, and institutions falsely accused of sex or disability discrimination and the like and then raked over the coals of an investigation or legal action. In fact, cases of true official discrimination have become so hard to find that the crusaders for equality have turned to elaborate statistical schemes to supposedly “prove” discrimination. So, we are told that statistical studies show that the imposition of capital punishment is discriminatory because it falls heaviest on certain minority groups (usually not discussed is that capital crimes are disproportionately committed by certain demographic groups—and usually against other members of that group). Now, we see the Obama administration moving against businesses that do criminal background checks because they claim this violates the civil rights of certain minority groups—again, ignoring the fact that statistically people in those groups have committed criminal offenses in disproportionate numbers. It is claimed that certain political structures, such as at-large city council seats, are discriminatory because they reduce the political clout of certain groups. So we have to adopt a certain view of representation that changes the character of the political institutions and ushers in a whole range of unforeseen consequences, including other types of discrimination.

Not only has “civil rights” become an excuse for aberrant behavior and ignoring poor personal formation and deep-seated socio-cultural problems among different groups (such as family breakdown and the decline of religious practice) that result in more crime. As with racism, we also have lost a clear sense of what the term means. What it traditionally meant, essentially, were protections such as those in the Bill of Rights. Their purpose was to insure liberty. Too often now we see civil rights claims being used to thwart liberty, embellish (often spurious) group claims, and advantage some and disadvantage others. Also, increasingly some of these most basic civil rights, like religious liberty, are sacrificed to ersatz rights generated by ideologies that are often subversive of true human dignity. Ergo, we witness the claimed rights of “sexual minorities” and the “rights” to engage in immoral acts (such as the recent case where the Archdiocese of Cincinnati was sued for employment discrimination when it dismissed a teacher—who was also a secret lesbian—for conceiving a child by artificial insemination). We also see striking examples of discrimination by leading crusaders against it, such as the feminists who don’t see a problem with sex-selection abortion that is primarily aimed at destroying female unborn babies.

The civil rights mentality has also at times created official endorsement of something like “mob rule.” One thinks here of the Rodney King case of 1992, when race riots—in which street gangs played a large part—erupted in South Central Los Angeles after a state jury acquittal of police officers on charges of brutality for their actions in trying to subdue repeat criminal King (who was especially aggressive, possibly because of alcohol and drugs). The response of the federal government—the Republican George H.W. Bush administration—was to then prosecute them for civil rights violations. Their ultimate federal conviction smacked of double jeopardy, even if technically it was not. We shall see how the Treyvon Martin case turns out, but one cannot help but wonder if the same kind of thing has happened. Police initially thought there were no grounds for criminal charges. When civil rights firebrands claimed that it just had to be racism, the state went into action. Do such episodes signal a new pattern of official civil rights violations (that is, in the name of supposedly stopping racism)?

Does this not sound like a utilitarian version of justice? Is it right to pursue questionable prosecutions because a segment of the community, which itself may be biased and has only part of the facts, clamors for it? Does even racial peace justify sacrificing one man or a group of men? Is that truly a recipe for inter-group harmony and mutual understanding? Does that insure that community will hold together on anything but the thinnest of threads?

Quite the contrary, it has been commented that the civil rights mentality, with its absolutist notion of rights and unwillingness to show any spirit of accommodation (the disability rights area is a crying example of this), divides group from group. Such a scheme is impervious to the need for civic friendship, which Aristotle said was essential for a political order and was so characteristic of the culture of America’s Founding Era.

It is time now to do what no one wants to suggest: Rethink and reform the civil rights laws. We need to start by asking the basic question of whether many of the subjects that we unquestioningly include in this category are best governed by law. For example, should employment decisions so readily be subjected to legal interference? Does this not give an intrinsic advantage to those in a protected group to get what they want, even when they don’t deserve it or have acted wrongly? That is, the threat that they might sue, even if without grounds, gives them considerable leverage. Should so many different categories of people benefit from civil rights protections? Should sex, disability, or even religion—to say nothing of having a tendency to same-sex attraction—be treated the same as race? Criminal civil rights laws, as in the Rodney King case, are problematical. Open-ended, unspecific criminal statutes that do not set out clearly what actions are illegal offend both the ethical requirements for a just law and our common law tradition. Moreover, there is reason to question whether government’s power to institute civil rights lawsuits against individuals should not be considerably narrowed. Recently, the attorney general of the State of Washington commenced a civil suit against a photographer who for religious reasons declined to provide services for a same-sex “wedding,” even though the homosexual partners did not make a complaint. As a starting point for reform, those who believe their civil rights have been violated should have to provide unmistakable proof that it occurred.

Further, we should consider that existing law actually interferes with putting into practice some points of Church social teaching, such as that their particular nature makes some jobs unsuitable for women and that a flat-out regimen of “equal pay for equal work” between men and women goes against the need to remunerate more those who head families (Laborem Exercens #19). Let us remember too that whenever the Church condemns discrimination, it is unjust discrimination. She favors equal opportunity; she does not insist that all be treated exactly alike in every way. It is not so clear that much of what passes for “discrimination” nowadays is unjust by any true standard. The tendency of the civil rights mentality to, effectively, accord “favored” status to certain groups is also troubling. While the Church opposes unjust discrimination and seeks to protect minorities (see Gaudium et Spes #29; Pacem in Terris, #94-96), she also makes clear that minority groups may not—in the words of Pacem in Terris—“exalt beyond due measure anything proper to their own people” (#97).

This is one more subject about which a full-fledged national debate is needed, even if in the Obama era—where “civil rights” is the ready hook to use to demonize dissenters from many parts of the ruling leftist orthodoxy—it can hardly be expected.

Stephen M. Krason


Stephen M. Krason's "Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic" column appears monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) in Crisis Magazine. He is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. He holds a J.D. and Ph.D. (political science) and an M.A. in theology/religious education and is admitted to a number of law bars, including the U.S. Supreme Court. He is the author, most recently, of The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic (Transaction Publishers, 2012), and editor of three volumes: Child Abuse, Family Rights, and the Child Protective System (Scarecrow Press, 2013) and The Crisis of Religious Liberty (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014); and most recently, Challenging the Secular Culture: A Call to Christians (Franciscan University Press). His latest book is Catholicism and American Political Ideologies (Hamilton Books). He is also the author of a new novel, American Cincinnatus. The views expressed here are, of course, his own.

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  • AcceptingReality

    Seems that those, like your caller, who espouse left wing ideology by regurgitating talking points lack either the desire or the ability to think critically about such things. They are also the ones who will accuse those who disagree with them of not being critical thinkers.

  • poetcomic1

    The net result? Knowing that a black doctor probably is a product of ‘affirmative action’ I choose not to be treated by one. Who would want a doctor who was advanced for his skin color and not for his grades and the quality of his work? Am I then racist?

    • Prof_Override

      Yes you are. The pool of applicants for medical schools is exceptional and deep. This hypothetical black doctor is just as qualified as those around him.

      • Steven Jonathan

        I think the comic was speaking a little “tongue in cheek” to begin with. Is there no room for discussion of the fact that the universities have lowered many standards for “people of color” to “even the playing field” and the possibility that those let in on a lower standards are perhaps less qualified than others? It is in fact a truth that the universities are apt to act as racists and merely call everyone else a racist who disagrees with their racist policies.

        You seem to have an unshakable yet starkly misguided faith in the system. It strikes me as an odd arrogance to claim equality amongst men you do not know, yet further, you make a claim of equality for a hypothetical pool of applicants? “Its all in Plato, Its all in Plato, what do they teach in the schools these days?”

      • Micha_Elyi

        Prof_Override, you’re dead wrong. Dead, as in the black who got the med school slot instead of Bakke has killed patients. And maybe you remember Kermit Gosnell?

        Try again.

  • Tony

    Fantastic! Finally, somebody standing up for Freedom of Association and for JUST and reasonable drawing of distinctions …

  • Watosh

    (1) We shouldn’t restrict anyone the right to vote for any reason. The more people who vote, the more the politicians can say we are a democracy in which the people rule. The country since it was founded has been engaged in expanding the right to vote. To place restrictions on who can vote is to go against the tide. Letting everyone vote keeps them happy. It doesn’t require any intelligence to vote, as those on the ballot are not usually very intelligent either.
    (2) The thing is when voting means you get to choose between a McCain and an Obama, a Bush or a Gore, a Bush or a Kerry, a Romney or an Obama, who should care whether they are allowed to vote or not. It is the military, and military industrialists, and the business and financial community that are running the country, regardless..

  • Steven Jonathan

    Civil wrongs indeed Dr. Krason! I have learned that the public schools promote the insanity now propagated by the psychological community that celebrates accidentals of birth as if they were choices and calls ethical choices accidents of birth, such as addiction, perversion, and all manner of vice. The idea that one is a racist if he recognizes the perversion and depravity of homosexual acts is an excellent example of the insanity that grips this lunatic age. I can’t believe the homosexualists can say it with a straight face, perhaps were it not for the Freudians , the mass media, and the public schools, they could not.

    By the standards of the world, this good article is racist- to speak the truth is now considered racist- the ego can all too easily become a black hole. A debate on the civil rights issues is only an occasion for the self-proclaimed disenfranchised to accuse the truthful of civil rights violations, it almost can’t happen. Thanks for a very good article!

    • Bono95

      “I can’t believe the homosexualists can say it with a STRAIGHT face,”

      There’s an interesting piece of irony there. 😀 :-/

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Anybody know the etymology behind “Jim Crow”? I can’t seem to find any reference to it online.

    • ColdStanding
      • TheodoreSeeber

        Thanks, that’s a step closer than I have ever gotten before. The connection I was looking for was probably lost in the Civil War. But nice to know that the term “Jim Crow” was about a type of racist comedy decades before it had anything to do with politics.

  • sparrowhawk58

    I was recently asked to serve as a Republican judge during the 2012 Presidential Election. Never again. I live on Chicago’s heavily Democrat South Side. I attended a mandatory training session where we were emphatically warned to watch voting equipment because it “walks off a lot.” Then we were told that we were not to ask for ID (except in special cases, as when the voter recently moved to the area and did not appear on the rolls). We had a facsimile of signatures, but if the name they signed looked NOTHING like the signature,
    “let it go, you are NOT the FBI.”

    So voters are dishonest enough to steal pens and cases, etc, but would NEVER commit vote fraud? Wow.

    Fortunately, I did not personally have any reason to suspect that people in my precinct were “mis-voting.” My gut tells me that this goes on all the time, though, and that election judges who would try to maintain the integrity of the election are denied the support and tools to do so. I feel like MY civil rights were violated.

    • Micha_Elyi

      I’ve been an election day poll worker in a western state and I was also instructed “not to ask for ID (except in special cases, as when the voter recently moved to the area and did not appear on the rolls)”. This perversion of fair and honest elections is brought to us by HAVA, the federal post-2000 foolishly-named Help America Vote Act. That was a bipartisan law, meaning legislators of both incumbent parties are to blame.

      Want to turn America around? Inform your neighbors. Complain publicly when pols and their groupies violate the letter or spirit of the laws. Get thee to church on Sundays and exhort your neighbors to do so also. And pray for America.

  • Kate

    Requiring that voters present id at the polls is not inherently racist or ageist. However one has to take into account that certain voting restrictions disproportionately affect particular groups. The people implementing the restrictions may not be motivated by racism, ageism, or classism but by political expediency, in this case expressed by a desire to suppress the votes of groups that traditionally vote for the opposition. Let’s take a look at the example of North Carolina, which has proposed several new bills in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision on the Voting Act. One bill proposes that voter id be required at the polls. Minorities, students, low income voters, and seniors are less likely to have id and are therefore more likely to lose their right to vote. 613,000 eligible voters in North Carolina, about 1 in 10 of voters, lack the required id. Nearly a third are black and over half are registered Democrats. Another bill proposes raising taxes on families with college students that choose to vote at school rather than at home. This would discourage students from voting. Another proposed bill aims to end early voting and same day voter registration in North Carolina, a state where black voters make up 29% of early voters and 34% of voters who register on the same day at the polls. If these bills pass, they will make it more difficult for some people to exercise their voting rights. The other side of the coin is that they raise red flags that will mobilize these very same people and their supporters. Ironically, that could result in a gain for the targeted groups.

    • cloonfush

      Using your logic, should all of us live the exact same distance from our polling place so as not to disadvantage those of us living farther from a polling place than some others? Does it ever end Kate?

      • John K. Walsh

        The idea is not to give everyone identical opportunities to vote but to facilitate the process for all. If you live far from a polling place, you could benefit from early voting which would allow you to vote on the one day you’re in town.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      These days students should have ID even if they don’t drive. It’s kind of required to be able to get grades.

      Low income maybe (if by low income you mean migrant workers who don’t have a permanent address, let alone an identity to tie to that address, paid under the table so that the rich person can cheat on minimum wage laws- and thus don’t meet minimum residency requirements as is).

      Why would seniors not have identification? I’d think their social security check stub would be sufficient.

      • John K. Walsh

        In Tennessee, student id cards from state universities are not accepted at the polls. Almost a third of Americans under the age of 24 don’t have driver’s licenses and many don’t have passports, handgun carry permits (!) or other “acceptable” forms of id. Could this just maybe be intended to make it easier for gun owners to vote than it is for students??? As for seniors, many don’t drive.

        • TheodoreSeeber

          I had a driver’s license at 16. What’s changed?

          And seniors don’t drive? Maybe over the age of 80 (certainly) but it’s pretty easy to just mark a license as “driving privileges revoked” in the database while leaving the person with the valid state ID (in fact, it’s kind of vital that the person retains the license record and the identity even in revoked situations).

          • Diogenes71

            Most states will provide identification cards/photo id cards at no charge if one claims she cannot afford it.
            Everytime I take one of the kids to the doctor’s office I need to show ID.. The new federal regulations (ObamaCare) mandate that ID must be shown at every officed visit.
            One cannot fregister for classes without ID.
            One cannot board an aircraft without ID.
            One cannot cash a check without ID.
            There is no reason anyone cannot have an ID.
            In Georgia, where stricter voter ID laws were passed a few years ago, voter participation increased because epople felt the system was more trustworthy and secure if everyone had to show ID. Makes sense, doesn’t it? .

            • TheodoreSeeber

              I was just on vacation at Great Wolf Lodge- I couldn’t even use my credit card without ID. It seems to me to be ridiculous that somebody would be without ID in this day and age.

            • Micha_Elyi

              When Georgia passed those “stricter voter ID laws” the usual suspects ran to court to bamboozle a judge into blocking the laws. But the state’s attorney was able to persuade the judge to demand some living examples of eligible voters lacking valid ID and unable to obtain any. The usual suspects, after claiming there were hundreds of thousands of people affected, could only produce three and all three of those people either already had ID or could easily get some if they made the least effort (one even walked past a state office where ID could be obtained every working day!).

              The lesson from all this? Liberals lie. Never trust anything they say without the evidence for their claims before your very own eyes.

    • msmischief

      It’s racist to declare the people of certain races are incompetent to get IDs.

      • John K. Walsh

        Nobody has declared that. The statistics about who would be affected are clear.

    • John K. Walsh

      Kate makes many excellent points. Electioneers are sneaky and sophisticated. They know how to manipulate who gets to vote within legal parameters. Nobody wants it to become more difficult to cast a vote than it is to buy a gun.

  • latejana

    One big mistake that we, the citizens of America, let our government make and society copied was the coding of people based only on their skin color and/or their last name. There is no “white” race. There is Caucasian. There is no “brown” race. Hispanics are Caucasian. If Italians, Lebanese, Greek etc can all be Caucasian why can’t Hispanics? I wonder if it because some Hispanics do have Indian heritage. Still, my birth certificate states that I am Caucasian. I see everybody as a shade of brown from darkest to lightest. We want to put people in boxes. This has created more division than unity in my opinion. Race is not equivalent with skin color or last name….

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Anyone who knows France and the French press will know that there is great concern about « communautarisme » by which they mean ethnic and religious solidarities and allegiances that threaten to override Republican unity. Americans, with their multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society have long appeared oblivious to these concerns – there is no English word for « communautarisme » – but it is deeply rooted in French political culture, going back at least as far as Rousseau’s suspicion of particular interests that undermine the general will.

    The president of the Muslim women’s movement « Ni Putes Ni Soumises » [Neither Sluts nor Door-mats] Sihen Habchi, in a forceful attack on “multiculturalism,” has demanded “No more justifications of our oppression in the name of the right to be different and of respect toward those who force us to bow our heads.”

    Every politician, of the Left or of the Right, berates the perceived racism of “Anglo-Saxon” multiculturalism – Try Goggling « l’affaire du foulard » [The headscarf business] However much people might have differed over the particular policy, they vied with each other in declaring their commitment to the Jules Ferry Laws, the Law of 1905, the ideal of laïcité and their unbounded faith in the capacity of the educational system to eliminate « communautarisme » (that fertile source of all social ills) and to mould future citizens of the Republic, one and indivisible.

    • slainte

      Is “communautarisme” the same as “communitarianism” ie., the personalist philosophy followed by Dorothy Day and Peter Mourin of the Catholic Worker Movement?

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        No, they are quite unrelated.

  • jpct50

    Forgive me, but whenever I see “and Matthew Shepard cases” mentioned anywhere, I always remind people, don’t forget Jesse Dirkhising, a young boy, raped and murdered by two homosexual predators.

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  • pmains

    “It is claimed that certain political structures, such as at-large city
    council seats, are discriminatory because they reduce the political
    clout of certain groups.”

    This was precisely the reason at-large elections were introduced in the first place. It was largely a Progressive era reform. Progressives like democracy, but dislike representatives who are accountable to their constituents. If you hold at-large elections, then elected officials are more remote from the “corrupting” influence of constituents. The system is still democratic in the sense that the voters control government, but it’s more like rule through opinion poll than rule by active citizens through their representatives.

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  • Micha_Elyi

    Just look around you. Among adults, men are the minority group. But women get all the special legal coddling. Gaudium et Spes and Pacem in Terris indeed. Take and read, Catholic scholars and bishops!

  • Margaret Del Debbio

    Is it possible you are speaking more as a citizen of a particular nation than as a disciple of Jesus Christ? The value your essay places on voting for representatives of empire distracts me from devoting myself to communion in the Kingdom of God.

  • Uuncle Max

    not all whites are racist

    not all racists are white

  • Uuncle Max

    This just in – Authorities from the Seminole County Sheriff’s office in Florida have confirmed that George Zimmerman (yes THAT George Zimmerman) helped rescue a 4 member family from an overturned vehicle.

    No one was injured and the family’s identity (and RACE) were not immediately known.

    Zimmerman then went back into hiding.

    Source – Newsmax, July 22, 02:59 pm

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