For a new push on civil rights
By Philip W. D. Martin; Phillip W. D. Martin is visiting lecturer in public diplomacy at Tufts University Experimental College.
Not so long ago, during another era, there would have been loud indignation and mass anger, but today silence has been the nation's response to the many documented incidents of organized and individual racial terror attributed to the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazis, and others.
The principal victims of these violations have been black, but the list also includes Hispanics, Jews, Native Americans, Iranians (and those who have been mistaken for Iranian), and white antiracists.
Although there is an openly expressed concern among various rights groups that these ugly episodes have increased in number and frequency over the last two years, President Carter, President-elect Reagan, and other high-level officials have not treated the situation with any real sense of urgency.
Many would agree that the country has made some quantitative progress since the civil rights protests of the '60s, but the latest round of racial crimes makes it apparent that we have quite a long way to go.
Although it may be true that these crimes were committed by a relatively small number of extremists, there are several factors which I believe have contributed to the situation:
* These acts have taken place in a general climate of growing American nationalism, jingoism, and religious fundamentalism, which for minorities has often signaled intensified racism. During this period we have witnessed a steady and apparently increasing backlash against affirmative action programs, desegragation of housing and schools, and tax spending for social programs designed to benefit the poor.
Although affirmative action programs have benefited a comparatively small number of minorities, propagandists continue to exploit the fears of whites by popularizing, among other myths, that of "reverse discrimination." The right has been successful, to some degree, in recruiting whites to their ranks by playing upon their economic discontent and political fears. While conservative politicians now have a greater chance of putting nonwhites "in their place" through legislative means, some whites still prefer violence to achieve that end.
* With the known exception of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) operating in Alabama, traditional black civil rights organizations have been very inactive in organizing on a grass-roots level against the over racism of the '70s and '80s. Not since Martin Luthur King has there been a dynamic black leader able to inspire and organize a mass movement of blacks to fight for their own self-preservation.
Today's civil rights leaders are a new breed. They spend more time behind closed doors in conference with aspiring politicians for high office and representatives of large corporations than in the streets organizing black communities around essential issues. When these leaders were summoned to Miami last May to help squelch anger over police violence and institutionalized racism , they were booed and hissed by the same people whom they claim to represent.
Today, civil rights organizations, fragmented and decentralized and based in part on the personalities of men whose images were largely created by the media, apparently pose little real threat to organized racists.
* The news media have given maximum coverage to virtually every KKK and American neo-Nazi event staged in recent years. Herbert Gans, a sociologist, pointed out in his book "Deciding What's News" that the press treats these two groups as a high priority in its coverage. KKK leader Bill Wilkerson, in an interview with one national newspaper, explained that he made it a point to understand "what reporters think is news." This has undoubtedly encouraged recruitment efforts.
* Law-enforcement officials seem reluctant to prosecute vigorously whites accused of violating the civil rights of nonwhites and white antiracist activists. The recent acquittals of Klansmen in North Carolina and Tennessee, and the benign response of federal officials to the establishment of over a dozen Klan and Nazi paramilitary camps nationally are seen by many as evidence of the unwillingness of police officials to act against these groups. It is also believed that the reported recent directive of President-elect Ronald Reagan to his Justice Department transition team to treat civil rights matters as a low priority will be interpreted as a green light by bigots of all types to proceed as planned.
Perhaps the greatest contributing factor to the resurgence of racist terror in America is the widespread silence with which whites and nonwhites have responded to the situation. American people must challenge their fear and apathy and unite as a nation of many ethnic groups, for the alternatives we face are further polarization and open confrontation.
It is time for a second march of solidarity of all the nation's people, like the 1963 Great March on Washington where Martin Luther King expressed his great dream of equality. We must revitalize our flickering human rights campaign to focus on the heinous crimes of racism and bigotry.