A New York Times Notable Book for 2011
Since the 1960s, ideas developed during the civil rights movement have been astonishingly successful in fighting overt discrimination and prejudice. But how successful are they at combating the whole spectrum of social injustice-including conditions that aren't directly caused by bigotry? How do they stand up to segregation, for instance-a legacy of racism, but not the direct result of ongoing discrimination? It's tempting to believe that civil rights litigation can combat these social ills as efficiently as it has fought blatant discrimination.
In Rights Gone Wrong, Richard Thompson Ford, author of the New York Times Notable Book The Race Card, argues that this is seldom the case. Civil rights do too much and not enough: opportunists use them to get a competitive edge in schools and job markets, while special-interest groups use them to demand special privileges. Extremists on both the left and the right have hijacked civil rights for personal advantage. Worst of all, their theatrics have drawn attention away from more serious social injustices.
Ford, a professor of law at Stanford University, shows us the many ways in which civil rights can go terribly wrong. He examines newsworthy lawsuits with shrewdness and humor, proving that the distinction between civil rights and personal entitlements is often anything but clear. Finally, he reveals how many of today's social injustices actually can't be remedied by civil rights law, and demands more creative and nuanced solutions. In order to live up to the legacy of the civil rights movement, we must renew our commitment to civil rights, and move beyond them.
Ford (The Race Card), a professor at Stanford Law School, seeks to apply a rationalist analysis of the efficacy of a multitude of antidiscrimination laws. Ford builds cogent although not unassailable arguments to conclude that such laws often undermine the rights they were designed to protect and can have unintended consequences that defeat larger social goals. Ford argues, for instance, that laws designed to ensure an adequate education for disabled students divert so many resources that a small number of disabled students receive a "gourmet education" while "others receive a "dog's breakfast." He tackles statutes preventing discrimination against older workers but his final pronouncement is that civil rights laws have been superb vehicles for righting specific cases of direct discrimination, but are "impotent" to cure the legacy of institutionalized social injustice. He offers no silver bullet, but warns that society runs the risk of focusing on the "wrong rights" and may ignore the imperative to correct the "right wrongs." Ford could be characterized as a contrarian debunking accepted wisdom of both the left and right, but all sides can learn much from his thinking.