A Warning Against "Rights" Balkanization
Racism in Ontario is pervasive. So said Stephen Lewis in his hurriedly concocted report on that topic presented to the Ontario government. Quite predictably, his recommendations focused mostly on what is to be done by the state and its agencies. The urge to politicize society is a telling symptom of our age. This is put into effect, as recommended in the Lewis report, by developing an extensive program of entitlements intended to stamp out discrimination. But in reality, these entitlements establish a system of state-sanctioned racism and reverse discrimination.
Shelby Steele is an American black who has issued a strong warning against this direction in public policy in his article "The New Sovereignty: Grievance Groups Have Become Nations Unto Themselves" (Harper's Magazine, July 1992). We are wise to pay careful heed to his advice.
Steele places the beginning of "one of the most dramatic social experiments" in U.S. history, as he calls it, in the late 1960s when the federal government began to expand the concept of entitlements. "Rights to justice and to government benefits were henceforth to be extended not simply to individuals but to racial, ethnic and other groups" with the intent to redress past grievances. Steele believes that much good has come out of the early civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King and others. It had the effect of restoring the constitutional rights of blacks and other minorities.
What is now happening, however, is that a special kind of power is bestowed "upon any group that is able to construct itself around a perceived grievance." This new "sovereignty" has spawned a host of entitlement-demanding blocs of aggrieved citizens. Steele mentions the example of the development at university campuses in which aggrieved groups (blacks, women, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, gays, lesbians) have been lobbying for separate studies and separate facilities. But he sees this development as setting the stage for "precisely the racial, gender, and ethnic divisiveness that, back in the Sixties, we all said we wanted to move beyond."
Similar developments have occurred in many other areas of American society, including in the workplace where a complicated system of affirmative action has been put in place. Whereas initially the purpose was integration and removal of the barriers of race and gender, Steele writes that integration is now "anathema to grievance groups for precisely the same reason it was anathema to racist whites in the civil rights era: because it threatened their collective entitlement by insisting that no group be entitled over another. Power is where it's at today—power to set up the organization, attract the following, run the fiefdom."
Steele is convinced that the proliferating entitlement programs, based on race, gender, or some other group grievance, are antidemocratic and socially destructive. In contrast, he advocates a form of integration that includes
all citizens into the same sphere of rights, the same range of opportunities and possibilities that our Founding Fathers themselves enjoyed. Integration is not social engineering or group entitlements; it is a fundamental absence of arbitrary barriers to freedom... .Understood in this light, collective entitlements are as undemocratic as racial and gender discrimination, and a group grievance is no more a justification for entitlement than the notion of white supremacy was at an earlier time. We are wrong to think of democracy as a gift of freedom; it is really a kind of discipline that avails freedom. Sometimes its enemy is racism and sexism; other times the enemy is our expedient attempts to correct these ills.
Steele's article deserves wide reading, especially in Canada where social engineering types are now busily engaged in reconstituting social relations by means of a complex array of state-enforced affirmative action programs. As Steele points out, what must be done is not to establish new kinds of sovereignty and entitlements in the name of victimhood, but to accept responsibility and freedom in a society where true integration is cherished and accommodated.