Birmingham, Alabama is considered by many to be the birthplace of the civil rights movement. Today, African-Americans in Birmingham benefit from a numerical majority in the population, corresponding majorities in government jobs, and political control of the city. But civil rights won’t address what ails the city now.
Birmingham is recognized as one of the most violent and poorly-run cities in the nation. The city runs a massive deficit, and is county seat of Jefferson County, which recently cut a deal with a European bank as part of the largest government bankruptcy in U.S. history.
Underlying this fiasco is a mixture of problems, none of which can be solved by the civil rights agenda, or by liberalism in any form. This is not to suggest that those rights should be rolled back, but to point out that today’s solutions will not come from civil rights.
Blacks in Birmingham have now obtained equal rights, special protection for those rights, preferential enforcement of those rights, a demographic majority, and a near monopoly on government employment. Moreover, that panoply of rights and benefits is funded by the nation’s highest sales tax. The results should be a progressive success story. Instead, Jefferson County’s bankruptcy stems in part from an epic and at times grimly amusing corruption scandal that resulted in the conviction of at least 22 people. Those convicted officials include the former mayor of Birmingham, Larry Langford.
Mayor Langford’s style of governance seems to fairly reflect the norms of many city residents. The New York Times provided the tenor of “[s]ome residents” with regard to the mayor’s conviction:
At a barbershop in a predominantly black neighborhood where the owner had hung a sign in the window reading, “We Support Our Mayor,” Charles Hicks said he was disappointed by Mr. Langford’s recent behavior but believed the former mayor was well-intentioned and was corrupted by wealthy businessmen.
“I’m just disappointed in the system,” Mr. Hicks said. “Larry had great ideas, but he got caught up in the trap.”
There is always a “trap”—always someone else to blame. That resolute avoidance of personal responsibility, writ large, must be a major part of the city’s problems. But such cultural and moral concerns are not part of the current civil rights agenda. Much more important was a program through which Mayor Langford provided laptops to children, in all government schools, in first through fifth grade.
An MIT study found that the results of this social policy were “disappointing.” Ownership of the free government laptops “did not increase use of computers for academic or content-creation purposes.” The MIT study further found that school-related laptop use somehow unbelievably actually decreased after students were given the free laptops: “The frequency with which students used a computer to create or listen to podcasts, do research, or do homework all decreased slightly from the pretest survey (before [free laptop] ownership) to the posttest survey (after [free laptop] ownership).” An army of sociology professors and community leaders could start a cottage industry simply trying to come to grips with the causes of this social engineering farce, and the subculture underlying it.
Meanwhile, the Birmingham City Council is taking on challenges like the proliferation of payday loan businesses. Councilwoman LaShunda Scales complained that payday loans “are the number one product the city offers to its citizens.”
From the top down, considering the racial breakdown of Birmingham city jobs, data indicate that blacks are fully empowered in the sphere of government. Whites are 22% of the city’s population, and hold 27% of public jobs (1180 of a total of 4273). Blacks are 73.4% of the population and hold 71.3% of public jobs (3051).
On the surface, this is surprisingly close to parity between population percentage and representation in government jobs. However, serious racial disparities remain within several city departments. For instance, the City Council has 35 black staff members, but only four whites; in the Mayor’s office there are 75 black and 12 white employees; Municipal Court Department: 89 black and six white; Public Works: 827 black, 99 white; Parks and Recreation Department: 301 black, 43 white.
If the races were reversed, civil rights leaders would claim that whites were being favored in those departments. With whites on the other end of the disparity, however, there is no favoritism perceived, and the arc of justice is inverted.
Racial parity in Birmingham government jobs was reached—in part—by means of racial preferences and hiring quotas in some departments. The Birmingham fire department’s racial quota system was one example. One black firefighter was asked what he thought about white firefighters who were disadvantaged by affirmative action. He responded:
So whites are saying, ‘Yeah, they did ‘em wrong, there’s no doubt about that, but we don’t want to do anything to help correct it. It wasn’t our fault. I wasn’t here.’ Well, okay, if it wasn’t your fault, and if you weren’t the recipient of what your forefathers did, or whatever, then, why . . . when we [blacks] take a test, [do] you [whites] always come out number one?
Some, in the birthplace of the civil rights movement, evidently see equal test scores as an entitlement. A similar mentality might lie at the root of Birmingham’s problems, including an ongoing discrimination lawsuit against the city.
In 2010, a white senior accountant for the City of Birmingham—Virginia Spidle, a 24-year employee—was fired for supposed racism. Her firing came shortly after she raised questions about the city’s disastrous financial accounting. The county personnel board cleared her of the racism charge, and reinstated her employment. However, a week after returning to her job, her management fired her againfor alleged incompetence.
Spidle filed a federal lawsuit against Mayor William Bell’s administration in early January 2013, claiming “his administration was the true perpetrator of racial discrimination.”
Spidle’s attorney, Gayle Gear, said, “We are celebrating 50 years of progress in civil rights. In the year we are celebrating that, good people of Birmingham would not approve of mistreating a person because of their race,” as The Birmingham News reported. “The city instigated and condoned a race-based hostile work environment in the city’s finance department,” the lawsuit reads. The City of Birmingham finance department has 108 employees; 70 percent are black and 30 percent are white.
The lawsuit seems to be one symptom of a larger problem. How did this sorry state of affairs come about? How can citizens and politicians fix Birmingham, and cities like it across the country? It doesn’t appear that a civil rights agenda can answer these questions going forward. Nor can any amount of government-given “opportunities,” resources, or any other euphemism for state involvement. Birmingham is simply past the point where legal, structural, or policy changes will ameliorate cultural pathology.