At last count, some 22 persons have been arrested in anti-South Africa demonstrations here, hundreds of others have volunteered for the pokey and there is talk of a revival of the old civil rights movement -- both its energy and its purpose. With all due respect, I would like to rain on that parade.
The respect comes from the nature of the commitment -- arrest and jail -- and the righteousness of the cause. Those who volunteer for arrest are, after all, protesting the policies of a country where racial segregation is maintained by both custom and force and where, specifically, black labor leaders are being held incommunicado. More power to them.
And they are protesting, also, the nice-nice policies of the Reagan administration toward South Africa. It is called "constructive engagement." What it comes down to is "constructive silence," a term as much an oxymoron as the policy itself. The administration claims that under this policy South Africa has moderated its racism, but the evidence for that is as lacking as the administration's moral indignation in the face of racism. Sometimes you just have to yell bloody murder.
But having said all that, there is something else to add, and it has to do with symbolism and reality. Sometimes, as the Reagan reelection campaign proved, the former has little to do with the latter. With balloons and marching bands, the president proclaimed a new morning in America, but neglected to mention what precisely that was or whether it had anything to do with the deficit. No matter. In 49 states, it was enough.
Now, in a similar way, the old civil rights leadership is reverting to symbolism. The demonstrations, after all, are almost entirely that. They are patterned after those held throughout the South during the civil rights era and their target -- raw racism -- is the same. It almost doesn't matter that this time there are no police dogs, no cattle prods, no fire hoses and no tobacco-chewing racist sheriffs to deal with. What matters is that once again the enemy is raw racism.
But the problem for black America is not any more the racism of the Old South or its equivalent in South Africa. The problem, instead, is economic and social -- poverty and its accompanying social disintegration. In fact, the so-called civil rights revolution has come and gone, and poverty has persisted, if not deepened. It turned out that it was easier to desegregate the Old South than to deal with the social and economic problems of a single block in an urban ghetto. No symbolic arrests will change that.
The plight of the old civil rights leadership is the plight of American progressivism in general: What do you do next? How do you turn the corner from racial equality to economic and social equality? Lyndon Johnson and his era of Democrats tried the Great Society and its programs, and now, many billions of dollars later, there are books saying it was all a waste of money. Politicians who talk of the poor and propose social programs are derided as old-fashioned, tagged with the label "New Deal Democrat" and dismissed to play pinochle with the ghost of Manny Celler. Haven't you heard? There's a new morning in America.
But the morning sun comes up over Harlem. It comes up over Watts and the South Bronx, the inner-city of Washington. It rises over a black unemployment rate that's just plain staggering, over social problems -- broken homes, unmarried mothers, drug addiction -- that are a national disgrace. As the black leadership knows, demonstrations and civil disobedience are not the remedy. For the moment, at least, there is no remedy.
It's good that the Reagan administration is being challenged on South Africa. I good that South Africa itself is being challenged because its policies are ugly. But all of that is like one of the president's balloon extravaganzas -- symbolism. It has little to do with the plight of black America, and it will have little effect even on South Africa. The real challenge remains what it has been for decades -- poverty.
You cannot blame the black leadership for returning even just symbolically to the old civil rights days. They're moving backward, but it's only because they can't move forward.