Forget Duck Dynasty; There Are Important Civil Rights Battles to Fight

Your Take: For the NAACP LDF, the lesson from 2013 is to choose race battles for meaningful political, economic and social impact.

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Phil Robertson and Miss Kay Robertson attend A&E Networks 2012 Upfront at Lincoln Center on May 9, 2012, in New York City.

Jason Kempin/Getty Images for A&E Networks

When the PR director of a digital-media company tweeted a racist remark about AIDS in Africa before boarding a flight from the United States to South Africa, thousands of Twitter followers tracked her flight. Thousands pressured cable channel A&E to suspend reality star Phil Robertson from his popular show, Duck Dynasty, after the publication of an interview in GQ magazine in which he made homophobic remarks and insisted that black people were happy under Jim Crow.

The previous week, Fox News host Megyn Kelly drew outrage when she insisted that both Santa and Jesus are white, and comedian Steve Martin pulled an off-color joke from his Twitter account and offered an apology. Political commentator Peggy Noonan decried the unsanitary condition of modern airplanes and worried that “a Senegalese tourist with typhus” might have been the most recent occupier of her airplane seat. 

In short, December was marked by a rash of racist and offensive remarks by public figures, drawing outrage and protests from large swaths of the public. But the frequency and number of these incidents in the last month of the year and the intensity of our focus on these occurrences should give us pause. It’s easy to see how policing the increasingly outrageous and offensive comments of public figures could be a full-time job, and one with uneven results (Kelly remains unrepentant and the Duck Dynasty guy is scheduled to be back on the air). And the time we spend addressing these outrages distracts us from the kind of focus and attention that produces real, meaningful civil rights gains.

The distinction between substantive barriers to equality and individual racist acts or statements is an important one. Both are deserving of attention, but the returns for victory in the former far outweigh those in the latter.

It’s impossible to identify one positive gain for the economic, educational, social or political condition of marginalized black people that resulted from the punishment meted out to Paula Deen (besides the obvious health benefits to all Americans from her show’s cancellation on the Food Network). We still need a fix for the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court’s disastrous decision in Shelby County v. Holder. We need real economic redress for African-American victims of predatory lending, and school-reform measures that provide our children with the tools they need to participate in the economy of the future and to serve as informed citizens of our country. We must end racial profiling, which remains an ongoing, dangerous and illegal affront to the dignity and citizenship of African Americans.

That’s why 2013 was such an important year for civil rights. It revealed and, in many instances, brought into stark relief how racial inequality is shaped by policy choices and structural inequality, and it also revealed how easily our energy and focus can be hijacked by our outrage against individual racist comments or the ignorant behavior of public figures who we rightly expect should know better.

In August we participated in a commemoration of the March on Washington. We marched and raised our voices and spoke powerfully of the need for jobs, for justice and the end of voter-suppression efforts. But five months later, many more of us have tweeted our outrage about Duck Dynasty than have called our congressional representatives to demand that Congress amend the Voting Rights Act.

Deen’s 20-year-old racist remarks and the star of Duck Dynasty’s Jim Crow nostalgia may make better blog copy, but they also distract us from the real and pernicious structural inequality that threatens to hold many African-American families and communities at the margins of our society. For example, in early December, when the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to retroactively apply the 2008 Fair Sentencing Act to inmates who were convicted under the old, discredited 100-to-1 crack to powder-cocaine sentencing laws, the opinion in the U.S. v. Blewett (pdf) case made a mere blip on the national radar and died on social media.

The decision itself was a dramatic one—a 10-7 split with four different opinions by the judges—and put on vivid display the powerful emotional response of many federal judges to overly harsh criminal-sentencing laws, which removed discretion from judges and imposed a rigid and inhumane sentencing regime for nonviolent drug offenders. The dissenting judges, like the U.S. Sentencing Commission, were not shy about calling out the racial implications of the sentencing disparity. Nine thousand individuals remain incarcerated under the old crack-sentencing laws. Ninety percent of them are African American. Yet little attention was given to this important case (which is likely on its way to the Supreme Court).

When President Obama followed up three weeks later, commuting the sentences of eight of those individuals still serving these onerous sentences, the story drew attention, but not nearly the same passion, analysis and airtime as the Duck Dynasty controversy. The president, who had drawn the ire of liberal critics because of his refusal to use his pardon power, issued a terse but powerful statement commuting the sentences of these eight offenders. It was high drama, designed without question by the administration to draw attention to an issue about which the president has passionate views.