Monday, April 22, 2013

Is the Civil Rights Movement Becoming Too Inclusive?

Since the 1960s, the civil rights movement has transformed into an ever-widening umbrella, incorporating women, Asians, Latinos, and most recently (and controversially) homosexuals into one constituency. While this has some obvious benefits, it has also sparked much debate over the dilution of the original civil rights agenda. The rise of minority coalition politics has certainly functioned to prevent   minority groups from undermining each other and has enabled a greater, more mainstream challenge to the status quo. Indeed, in some ways this broadening can be interpreted as a natural response to the success of black activism; leaders of other groups first emulated and then attempted to align with black activists and intellectuals.

While being inclusive is generally seen as inherently valuable, it is problematic for the civil rights movement in several ways. It serves to equate all 'minority' experience, to amalgamate all into one massive 'superminority.' This overlooks key differences in the realities of discrimination faced by different groups in a way that is truly detrimental to all of them; the challenges faced by homosexuals and African-Americans are not necessarily the same and ought not be boiled down to some notion of faceless 'discrimination' or 'prejudice.' Oversimplification to this level sounds nice in theory, promoting a world where everyone cares about each other as a person and respects difference, but in practice it cannot be enacted in any practical manner.

This is especially harmful to African-Americans, inheritors of a historical legacy unparalleled by other minority communities. In fact, African-Americans still lag behind other minority groups in terms of social and economic mobility. The uniqueness of the African-American experience has been obscured by the inclusion of a growing list of groups, such as people over 40, Asians, people with disabilities, homosexuals, and women, included in the civil rights platform. The historical circumstances of African-Americans, going all the way back to slavery, are profoundly distinct from those of other minorities, as is evident in the continuing legacy of this structural racism. Arguably much of the moral legitimacy of the civil rights struggle was borne out of this history, a history that many were forced to accept demanded redress.

Treating all minorities as equivalent leads to a spiral of victimization; that is not to say that these groups are not worthy of protection or respect, but that perhaps the idea of exclusion is not so abhorrent. Co-opting the agenda of the civil rights movement to protect the estimated 80% of Americans who fit under some 'protected minority' status seems counterproductive. Recognizing common aims is good, but attempting to construct a not just post-racial, but post-difference society within the movement will truly serve no one. Differences exist for a reason; white-washing over them is exactly what the civil rights movement should have taught us to avoid.


  1. This is a really interesting argument, Phoebe. As an International Studies major, this reminds me of one of the most prominent debates in the IS field currently which is the expansion and broadening of the term security as it relates to International affairs. Traditionally, the term referred to the security of states in a military sense. That is, how can states secure their borders and population effectively? Since the 1960's and 70's there has been a movement to add more factors to the term security to include other issues such as environmental security, health security, etc.

    While it is important to consider all of the different threats to the international system, this expansion of the term also dilutes the meaning of security and confuses where effort and resources should be expended. In the same vein, I liked your point about the counter-productivity of expanding the civil rights movement to be inclusive of all minority groups. Does this end up helping or hurting them in the end?

  2. I ran into this myself when I was doing research for our final paper. As I was furiously searching for sources on JSTOR and other sites, I would type in key terms, always including the civil rights movement as part of my search. However, possibly because I was writing about sexual violence and the fear of miscegenation, my search results were overwhelmed with the newest activism incorporated under the umbrella term "civil rights movement": gay rights and gay marriage.

    While this was frustrating as far as my research went, it is also frustrating to me in a larger context. I think that by overgeneralizing the term "civil rights movement", we are discrediting the decades of hard work and dedication of African American activists and their struggles and victories. Of course women's rights, minority rights, and gay rights are all extremely important in our society and deserve attention and recognition. However, I strongly believe that their struggles should be given another name (each their own). There is already enough confusion and misunderstanding of the African American Civil Rights Movement and I think it only further complicates its context to give the same name to other movements, who should be looked at and examined in their own right. Each group has been discriminated against, yet the mechanisms in which this has happened, as well as for what reasons this has happened are very different, and should be treated as such.