If the post-civil rights era has had one distinguishing feature, it has been the perpetual quest to lay claim to the movement’s unambiguous moral authority. The defining civil-rights issue of our time isn’t just one issue; it’s any issue that lacks the righteous urgency its advocates believe it deserves.
The latest “civil rights issue of our time” comes to us via Harvard University Law Professors Lawrence Lessig. Writing in USA Today, Lessig raised the stakes on the Democratic Party’s “House Resolution 1” as the reform from which all future reforms would spring. Even if it isn’t the very first matter on the docket when the next Congress convenes, its designation at the top of the list of Democratic priorities “screams a recognition” of the “critical failures” that cripple our republic. So, what is it? A bill that would augment donor disclosure requirements, expand voter registration, reduce the likelihood of partisan gerrymandering, and end first-class travel for lawmakers, among other things.
The bill’s comprehensive nature ensures that it is unlikely to pass—the kind of incrementalism fanatics deride as half-measures is really the messy but viable product of legislative compromise. Quite unlike those behind the actual civil-rights movement, it is unlikely that Lessig will undertake the measures necessary to see his burning imperative addressed in law. This is his pet issue, and he’s no stranger to quixotic campaigns to popularize it—he even ran for president on a platform that consisted almost exclusively of election reforms. And while calling an overburdened campaign finance-reform proposal “the most important civil rights bill in half a century” may seem a bit hyperbolic, Lessig didn’t invent the construction. Activists have been calling for “a national dialogue” to reframe “campaign finance as a civil rights issue” for the better part of the last two decades.
Lessig may be excitable, but he’s no outlier when it comes to appropriating the cause of civil rights to advance a political program. On education issues especially, everyone is in on the act.
George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump have all described education as a civil-rights issue; even the “civil-rights issue of our time.” This common rhetorical flourish is, however, the beginning and the end of bipartisan agreement on education. Depending on your persuasion, the “civil-rights issue of our time” as it relates to education might be literacy, opportunities for girls, high-school dropout rates, the unequal distribution of funds from local bonds to public schools, or school choice. Liberal activists who see themselves as the proper heirs to the legacy of the civil-rights movement have protested school choice, and only the school choice, because it allegedly cheapens the struggles of minority groups fighting for equality before the law.
In fact, there is very little agreement about what constitutes a civil-rights issue among those who invoke the phrase. After Barack Obama announced that he had reversed his position on same-sex marriage rights in 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder called the effort to achieve equality for gay couples one of the “defining civil-rights challenges of our time.” Vice President Joe Biden went a step further, contending that transgender equality was, in fact, the “civil-rights issue of our time.” But to the producers of “40,” a film that mournfully commemorates the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, securing the rights of the unborn is the “most important fundamental human and civil-rights issue of our time.” Doubtlessly, there is little agreement here about the true champion of civil rights.
The number of civil-rights issues that loom large for this generation increases with each passing year. They range from serious matters of public policy to the obscure hobbyhorses of cynical, advantage-seeking politicians.
Healthcare and disproportionate access to it across class and racial divisions is “the civil-rights issue of our time.” But then, so is immigration reform. Influential political and cultural figures from Senators Bob Menendez and Dick Durbin to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg agree.
Increasing rates of incarceration together with America’s ballooning prison populations also make up the “civil-rights issue of our time.” Our chief civil-rights struggle includes both the problem of over-policing minority neighborhoods and under-policing them in favor of wealthier, whiter municipalities. Activists view the unjust application of “stand your ground” laws and the selective enforcement of drug laws through the prism of civil rights, and who is to say they’re wrong?
But, then, many hope to lay claim to the legitimacy that accompanies civil rights. “Mental health is truly a civil right,” read one novel argument. “[T]imely access to mental-health care is the civil-rights issue of our time,” another went. Indeed, for some, the real “civil-rights issue of our era” is mental-health awareness. But so is the propensity for athletes to experience brain injury, particularly children. The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity “believes that dyslexia is a civil-right issue of our time,” but Eric Holder has also insisted that “the civil-rights issue of our time” is really anti-Muslim bigotry. From “food security” to “predatory lending,” from “Net Neutrality” to the cancelation of the Baltimore Red Line; all are a, if not the, defining civil-rights crusade of the 21st Century.
Insofar as they relate to individual and collective equality before the law, all these issues are civil-rights issues. But the advocates and political actors who invoke the civil-rights Movement in these cases are not merely seeking a place for their concerns in the pantheon of equally legitimate struggles for constitutional freedoms. They are laying claim to the one true struggle for equalitarian liberty at the expense of all others. That is the pursuit of advantage, not awareness. Theirs is an effort to secure political superiority, and that surely cheapens not just the cause for which they are advocating but the legacy of the civil-rights movement.