Divided We Fall: Group Rights in America

Are we fighting discrimination, or just organizing it into blocs?

By , Philip Perlmutter is former executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. This article is an excerpt from his new book, "Divided We Fall: A History of Ethnic, Religious, and Racial Prejudice in America" (Iowa State University Press).

IRONICALLY, at a time when our 200-year-old government has been expanding individual freedom, we see the following:

* The group is becoming the basic unit of governmental protection, opportunities, and benefits;

* Injustices to individuals, and the absence in certain contexts of individuals according to their group proportion of the population, are automatically defined as group wrongs and responded to with group-based remedies;

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* Policies and practices once designed to ensure an individual blindfolded justice and merit-based hiring and promotion practices are being changed to ensure preference and priority because of group characteristics;

* Ethnic, religious, racial, and sexual political organizations are proliferating to obtain benefits based on their group being;

* Societal goals are being redefined in terms of group proportional representation and equality of results, economically and politically.

By force of logic and politics, such patterns can only lead to the debasement of the individual's worth; the rise of new intergroup envies, resentments, and conflicts; increased social and governmental divisiveness; and the creation - and recreation - of invidious ethnic, racial, religious, and sexual classifications.

As government yields to the often competing demands of more than 100 distinct ethnic groups, thousands of religious sects, and countless special-interest organizations, this nation will be plagued with all the intergroup problems of many old and newly emerging nations of the world.

If such predictions echo 19th- and 20th-century nativists, they do so in appearance only. The xenophobia and Anglo-Saxon triumphalism that characterized nativist forebodings were unsubstantiated by reality. Southeastern European and Asian immigrants, the chief targets of nativists, did acculturate without weakening the democratic structure of government. They asked for no special or favored treatment. All they wanted was the same rights as other citizens.

In turn, all that government expected was their compliance with the law of the land and, if they wished, citizenship. They were on their individual own - for better or worse. Only nativists, racists, anti-Semites, and assorted religious triumphalists at that time spoke of group rights.

Unlike the nativists, those who oppose group rights today are not opposed to the groups themselves. Nor do they fear dangers from foreigners or the debasement of white, Anglo-Saxon stock, but rather a government that is moving from a respect and tolerance of groups to one validating and extending rights and benefits according to groups' biological, creedal, sexual, or cultural makeup. Instead of Madison's multiplicity of interests and sects making democracy secure by keeping each group in check, governme nt is now undermining the balancing process by increasingly acceding to the preferential demands of some groups.

The result is a new bigotry founded on factors previously held odious, if not unconstitutional. Groups no longer seek the individual rights and opportunities that members of other groups have, regardless of religion, ethnicity, race, or sex. They want them because of those factors.

Thus, the NAACP abandoned its original ideals of "impartial suffrage" and "opportunities for [individuals to secure] justice in the courts, education for their children, employment according to their ability, and complete equality before the law." Also discarded are the rationales that fueled the civil rights movement, such as Thurgood Marshall's 1948 belief that "qualifications and distinctions based on race or color have no moral or legal validity in our society;" President Kennedy's affirmation that e very citizen should "enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color;" Roy Wilkins's belief that "people ought to be hired because of their ability, irrespective of their color;" Hubert Humphrey's assurances that "an employee should be hired on the basis of ability" and that "an employer should not be denied the right to hire on the basis of ability and should not take into consideration race;" and Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream that his children will "one day live in a nation

where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Cultural ethnicity - private and voluntary - is no danger to society. But politicization of efforts to secure group rights and the government's validation of group rights threatens to change our open, pluralistic society into a circumscribed, fragmented one.

In such a setting, national problems will be dealt with as group problems. No longer will there be a unified approach to solving problems of poverty, housing, employment, or education. Instead, we will become a house divided, inhabited by a host of competing groups, each defining the common good in accordance with its aspirations and percentage of tenants.

Those most organized will gain the most, but their victories will be short-lived, for if resentment by another group does not overwhelm them, coalitions of disaffected groups eventually will. The losers will be most individuals of whatever group, for their freedoms will have been forfeited to the whims of group conflict.

This is what happens when government reinforces rather than combats group-centrism and fragments rather than unifies citizens. Needed is a wall of separation between state and group, like that between church and state, preventing government from making any law respecting the establishment of ethnic, religious, racial, or sexual groups or preventing their free exercise. This principle would validate what the Founding Fathers believed when they wrote the Constitution and Bill of Rights - the supremacy of i ndividual rights over group ones and the separation of governmental powers to prevent tyranny by any one group.

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