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.
The president’s actions, coming on the heels of the divided Sixth Circuit decision, set the stage for an impactful moment of an engagement with one of the most important racial injustices of our time. But instead this story had a 24-hour shelf life. The decimation of black families and communities by our culture of incarceration will one day be recognized as among the most destructive and inhumane policies of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. But we have yet to see it garner the kind of attention and focused activism that will be required to make real change.
And what of Trayvon Martin, who didn’t even make the shortlist of contenders for Time magazine’s “person of the year”? (Miley Cyrus did) This was the year when Broadway stars donned hoodies, when young activists sat in for months at the Florida state Capitol, when the dignity of Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s parents, held us transfixed and riveted and when we were outraged that the value of a black child’s life could be held so cheap.
In fact, Trayvon’s death and the acquittal of his killer drew our sustained attention this summer to a monumentally important shift in our criminal-justice laws, with powerful racial implications. Few Americans had heard of “Stand your ground” laws before Trayvon’s death. But because of the trial of Trayvon’s killer, we now know that 33 states have laws that permit the use of deadly force based on the subjective threat of the individual.
Many Americans now also know about the existence of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that drafted model "“Stand your ground” legislation that was simply adopted by lawmakers who attend ALEC conferences. These laws have passed without any significant study or engagement with the vital question of how race (and gender) affects our subjective understanding of threat. It’s no surprise that white shooters of African Americans more successfully invoke “Stand your ground” laws as a defense to homicide, but it is a travesty of justice, which we must confront and change.
In sum, we have our work cut out for us. Thus, the greatest challenge we may face in 2014 is discerning when and how to most effectively focus our attention, our outrage and our activism. The energy marshaled to punish the digital-media executive for her Twitter transgression would be better harnessed in an effort to stamp out overly long and harsh prison sentences for nonviolent offenders, and to release those still held under old sentencing regimes now universally recognized as unfair and racially discriminatory.
When the Blewett case from the Sixth Circuit makes its way to the Supreme Court, we lawyers will be ready with our arguments and our briefs. But we should also be ready with an informed, organized army of activists who are prepared to raise public awareness, speak powerfully to the injustice of harsh mandatory minimums and apply pressure to Congress to do more to restore the lives of those unfairly sentenced.
2014 will mark the 60th anniversary of the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. Each of these occasions stands as a stark reminder that real change—true civil rights victories—comes when we focus with laser attention on the structural barriers that stand in the way of opportunity and access and when litigation, mobilization and advocacy work hand in hand. As we commemorate these powerful moments in civil rights history, our challenge will be to use the power of our outrage with surgical precision—to discern the difference between that which outrages us and those things that truly bar us from opportunity, advancement and dignity.
The good news is that many—like the young activist Dream Defenders in Florida and the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina—have kept their eyes on the prize. We will all have to do the same if we are to honor what men and women with considerably fewer resources were able to accomplish 50 years ago. 2014 is a year of challenge and opportunity for civil rights activists and lawyers, as well as for all Americans who value equality, opportunity and democracy. But our success will be commensurate with our discipline, rather than our outrage.
Sherrilyn A. Ifill is the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which argued the Blewett case in the Court of Appeals, and the Shelby County v. Holder voting-rights case before the Supreme Court. Follow her on Twitter.
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