THE BLOG
03/19/2014 11:39 am ET Updated May 17, 2014

Where Have Civil Rights Gone?

A friend of mine, one of the pioneers of fair housing in Orange County, CA, lamented the other night how all the bright young people left the civil rights movement in the nineteen-seventies, and turned to ecological issues. Of course, he recognized, if they didn't tackle those problems, global warming might destroy every human being, regardless of their race. But still, it left the ranks of those fighting for equal rights and access for blacks badly depleted.

Part of the reason for the decline is a debate whether we have reached post-racial status. In a recent NY Times article, the author noted how, "In the news media and in popular culture, the notion persists that milennials...are growing up in a colorblind society in which interracial friendships and marriages are commonplace and racism is largely a relic."

The article then presents a series of counterexamples: at the University of Michigan, a primarily white and Asian fraternity held a party dressed up as "rappers, twerkers, gangsters...back to da hood...." Similar incidents have raised tensions at Arizona State, UCLA, UMiss, and Dartmouth.

Another factor is the emergence of competing causes. In the late fifties and into the next decade civil rights was the dominant protest movement. By the end of the sixties, Vietnam came to dominate public discourse. Later, other movements joined the national discussion. Back in the eighties, when I did a bit of work with black contractors in Chicago, they bemoaned the reality that competition for contracts for MBE (Minority Based Enterprises) now had to reckon with the addition of WBE (Women Based Enterprises). Gender rights is still a very alive issue, hotly debated. Today, appeals for civil rights activism have to be balanced against causes like LGBT rights, immigration, or disability access.

But a lot of the reason for the decline in civil rights activism is our fault as progressives. We have not kept up with the changing times, with enormous consequences.

To the average American, the image of a racist is one fixed in the sixties. Think of a white sheet and hood before a burning cross, or a Southern sheriff complete with mirrored aviator sun glasses, paunch, a thick drawl and a very bad attitude.

There are a lot of dangers here. To many of our countrymen, if these images are how we define racism, and you do not fit in that pictures, you can't be a racist.

Yet, in the half century since the great civil rights campaigns, racism has changed its face and its campaigns. Now there are new arenas, new battles, and we have not taught the public to revise its stereotypes, its impressions of racism.

This failure by the left gives racists a huge advantage. They can engage in any kind of behavior and yet deny their culpability, since clearly their recent actions do not match up with an old impression anymore. Are the attacks on President Obama racist? An unfair charge, opponents of the administration angrily rebut, since we're not Klan members, never have been, and respect the sixties' civil rights laws. Even Joe Wilson, who screamed "You lie!" at the president as the chief executive addressed Congress, now gets a free pass without a definition that matches up to his actions and attitudes.

David J. Leonard, professor of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State, pointed out how "young people...viewed racism as something associated with extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan."

What this country needs, desperately, is a new popular definition of racism that captures its modern day face and activities. Until we develop this concept and get widespread buy in, racists will always have an effective counter to any claims against their behavior.

Since Martin Luther King marched, racism has evolved. The popular concept of what this evil looks like, what it says, what it does, has not, however. That shortcoming, that failure, is the fault of progressives, not those on the other side. But it provides a gigantic alibi to those who resist the cause of equal rights in this country.