The Civil Rights Act at 50: “a moral issue”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law fifty years ago. Upon introducing the bill into Congress in June of 1963, President Kennedy delivered a striking address calling on Congress to alleviate our “moral crisis” of race discrimination:

“We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. [. ] The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?”

Kennedy framed the debate around the Civil Rights Act in distinctly moral terms. He invoked equality, freedom, and civic obligation to fellow man, calling on Congress and the American people to act against social, educational, and electoral injustice. Significantly, he appealed to conscience, asking us if whites would be willing to trade races to stand in the place of black Americans. This foreshadowed the Rawlsian idea of a veil of ignorance. This idea – a core liberal conception of justice – tells us that we should create the kind of society and policies that we’d want if we didn’t know what our social status would be – that is, the kind of society we’d want were we born into a disadvantaged minority group. This is essentially a thought experiment of a more famous ethical maxim: “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” (Hence Kennedy’s appeal to the Scriptures.) Theoretically, such a conception of justice should lead to a more equitable and reciprocally decent society.

These are powerful ideas. Yet too often, contemporary liberals show discomfort making the case for their vision in explicitly moral terms. In our recent politics, conservatives claim the mantle of the “values party” on issues from abortion to marriage to even the federal debt, unflinchingly making their policy pitches through moral terms. Liberals instinctively debate with one hand behind their backs, ceding moral territory to make dry technocratic justifications for their policy proposals.

Consider our extended national debate over health care reform from 2009 to 2010. Reflecting on the substance of the debate, we heard far too much from the reform’s advocates about “bending the cost curve” of health care and making insurance more affordable for the middle-class. These are certainly worthy goals, but hardly the stuff of moral inspiration. While conservatives raged against the law as an assault on freedom, liberals largely failed to present the ways that reform makes us freer and more just, instead relying on comfortably sterile economic arguments – arguments that should be ancillary to the goal of universal health coverage. It’s as if Kennedy had advocated for the Civil Rights Act based on the economic gains from integrating restaurants and public accommodations.

In part, I think liberals neglected to make a strong moral argument on the behalf of health care reform because they took it for granted that the moral imperative was well understood. In President Obama’s 2009 address to Congress, he said: “Everyone understands the extraordinary hardships that are placed on the uninsured, who live every day just one accident or illness away from bankruptcy.” Because liberals assumed that the moral crisis was well known, it became an afterthought to their arguments when it needed to be front and center.

Toward the end of his speech, Obama reflected on the memory of the late Senator Ted Kennedy who – echoing the words of his brother – reminded us that health care presented “a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.” To Obama, Kennedy’s “large-heartedness – that concern and regard for the plight of others – is not a partisan feeling. [. . .] Our ability to stand in other people’s shoes. A recognition that we are all in this together; that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand.”

This appeal to community, social solidarity, and Golden Rule empathy lie at the heart of the liberal vision of society. They also happen to be the strongest arguments in favor of it. Writers like George Packer and public philosopher Michael Sandel have long urged liberals to abandon bloodless technocratic arguments in favor of appeals grounded in moral principles. For it is these types of arguments that can move the country to do big things. They are arguments that have the force to build momentum toward liberal projects like immigration reform, LGBT rights, gun control, and protection against climate change. For the liberal vision is fundamentally one of community, and that requires asking us to stand in one another’s shoes; to rest in one another’s skin.

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2 thoughts on “The Civil Rights Act at 50: “a moral issue”

  1. Pingback: Who’s afraid of a wise Latina? | J.DODGE blog

  2. Pingback: Why is health care especially special? | J.DODGE blog

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