Rights Gone Wrong: How Law Corrupts the Struggle for Equality
By Richard Thompson Ford. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pp, hardcover
The civil-rights movement certainly ranks as one of recent history’s indisputably commendable projects. The fight to break the shackles of racial discrimination by creating new interpretations of constitutional principles and state laws proved incredibly successful. No longer is the United States a breeding ground for sickening displays of outright racism.
Which suggests that, perhaps, the more civil rights we have, the better. Well, not necessarily. At least not according to Stanford law professor Richard Thompson Ford in his new book Rights Gone Wrong: How Law Corrupts the Struggle for Equality.
Today, Ford argues, the problems facing ethnic minorities, the disabled, gays and lesbians, and other marginalized people do not amount to cases of overt discrimination. Now people are mistreated in subtler and more systemic ways. They are excluded from social advancement in ways that can’t easily be rectified legally.
Many African-Americans, for instance, still live in communities produced by a history of segregation. Economically and socially isolated from the broader community, they suffer income inequality that has only grown over the last few decades. “Civil rights litigation and activism have hardly made a dent in these formidable obstacles,” writes Ford. “In fact, sometimes civil rights thinking can distract attention from the real problems, emphasizing dramatic incidents that aren’t good examples of the larger injustices.”
Some civil rights have proven worse than mere distractions, Ford points out. Some have even done more harm than good. He notes, for instance, how the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, enacted upon the emancipation of slaves to protect their chances of achieving a better life, and ultimately buttressing the legal case for desegregation in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, was used in 2007 to prevent racial integration in the Seattle school district. A system in which students were to choose the school they wished to attend (one involving race-based tie-breaking, which, paradoxically, would have led to more racial integration) was deemed contrary to the 14th Amendment.
The solution, according to Ford, is to return to the roots of the civil-rights movement. Progressive Americans should no longer be overly concerned with group identity and the “stigmatic injury, stereotypes and subjective emotional harm” that have led to courts becoming distracted by treating the symptoms of discrimination. They must return to the causes of inequality, and refocus themselves on “economic inequality and the tangible evils of the American racial hierarchy”, argues Ford in this compelling reappraisal of a largely accepted approach to discrimination.