In the Fight for Racial Justice, Equality of Opportunity, Not Elitism, Should Be the Goal

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The cause of “racial justice” is more popular than ever before. But even its most vocal progressive advocates don’t seem to know what it is they’re fighting for anymore.

At the beginning of the civil rights movement, we fought to open doors that had been closed to us by law. We wanted to end the systematic legal and political restrictions on black opportunity; we wanted black people to be evaluated for our character and capability, not our skin color or assumptions people made about us because of it.

Somewhere along the way, our vision for racial justice got hijacked by bureaucrats, academics, and activists who understood civil rights to mean something entirely different.

For these interlopers, racial justice didn’t mean equality of opportunity; it meant the fantasy of equality of outcomes. And racial justice advocates now insist on redefining the Black American struggle as a quest to trust our lives to elites who promise to make sure we all get the same amount of stuff. What began as a grassroots movement for equality has become an elitist project, one that’s more about power than it is about real justice.

The elitist condescension toward Black Americans is nothing new, though it’s grown particularly virulent lately. Part of the current black experience in America is to be viewed by both progressives and conservatives through the lens of pathology instead of potential.

Many elites of all political and ideological stripes have long pathologized black people by treating us as problems to be solved, rips in the social fabric that need to be mended by well-meaning, though often seriously misguided, public policy interventions. Now, we’re often viewed as nothing more than helpless victims awaiting rescue from our privileged white oppressors.

When discussing the real problems facing the black community, it’s important to acknowledge that the majority of black people are doing just fine: We are middle-class or wealthy , and our educational attainment continues to increase. The problems facing lower-income black people are the same problems facing low-income residents of any race or ethnicity: problems such as a lack of access to good schools, broken families, and a dearth of economic opportunities. Instead of targeting these problems, today’s elitist racial justice advocacy focuses on devising new ways to give black people handouts arbitrarily.

This approach not only pathologizes black people, but it also directs our attention and energy away from initiatives that could actually work to improve life for low-income people of all races. We have major corporations, from Nike to Bank of America, spending millions of dollars to promote racial justice.

Yet, virtually none of that money goes anywhere close to where it can make a real difference. It’s wasted on campaigns that are heavy on rhetoric and light on substance.

Instead, we need to be investing in community-generated initiatives and grassroots organizations and institutions such as the Rosenwald Schools of old. The Rosenwald Schools were schools for black children built by Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald in the early 1900s. They believed that black students could achieve great things, and they increased educational outcomes among black people, even though the nation was very divided over racism.

I’m also thinking of organizations such as the Alliance of Concerned Men , which has helped reduce gang violence in Washington, D.C., or initiatives such as the Milwaukee Violence Free Zone , which empowered local leaders to work with troubled youth to reduce violence and envision a better life free from crime.

For four decades, this is what The Woodson Center and our community affiliate organizations have done. Since 1998, we have disbursed more than $50,000,000 in funding to local neighborhood charities, through grants of various sizes that have typically ranged in size from $500 to $5,000. These mini-grants are awarded to local groups that are removing barriers to upward mobility, including reducing crime and violence, addressing addiction, supporting and strengthening families, improving education, and building job skills, promoting small business formation, and so on.

We should be funding proven solutions that are transforming lives right now, not slogans and catchphrases. These programs are working in vulnerable black communities to create an equality of opportunity. We should be mobilizing as much money and as many resources as we can to support these efforts.

We also need to focus on the accomplishments of young black men and women who work hard and who change their lives and the lives of those around them. I’m thinking of thousands of people such as Kamia Bradley , a member of our Woodson Center network, whose own experience fighting homelessness to become an accomplished flight instructor has no place in a world where the only story people want to tell is that of elites intervening to save the oppressed.

I left the civil rights movement because I felt its vision had been captured by elites who were more concerned with building their own careers than with the ordinary men and women who were manning their protests and marching with them in the streets. When I look at many “racial justice” advocates, I see the same problem. Instead of the old-fashioned racism I grew up with, this new bigotry demands we capitulate our self-confidence and surrender our personal agency in order to qualify for their “help.”

Most of America, like most of black America, is doing fine. But there are areas that continue to be plagued by spiking crime rates, failing schools, and multigenerational poverty. By placing so much emphasis on racism as the principal cause of this phenomenon, the elites are enriching themselves at the expense of those who actually have to live in these neighborhoods.

Spending millions to force suburban white people to “interrogate their privilege” will do nothing to make these neighborhoods safer or more prosperous, but instead represents a lethal diversion of resources away from the real solutions. If we want to see more opportunity and real progress, not just rhetoric, we need to support true community leaders doing the work, not disconnected elites.

This article was originally published by the Washington Examiner.

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