Why you should care
These four leaders are building a future where everyone has a fair shot.
Over the past couple of weeks, dozens of prominent civil rights activists have flown to Ferguson, Missouri, where a police officer killed 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9. Many have, rightly, pointed out that police violence against black citizens is a motif that recurs throughout American history. But a crisis like this is also a good time to look ahead at a new generation of civil rights leaders. They may not be in the mold of traditional leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or the Rev. Jesse Jackson, yet they’re leading on justice and equal opportunity, and their work could help us achieve a more perfect union.
The California attorney general is a clear political talent, with lots of charisma, networks and experience in a deeply flawed criminal justice system. Kamala Harris has shown willingness to take on behemoths like big banks, and winningness, too: Just this week she announced that California will recover $300 million in damages after a settlement with Bank of America in a mortgage fraud case. She’s also got plenty of love from higher-ups — President Obama just can’t stop tipping his hat to her, which is one reason her name keeps popping up in discussions of potential nominees to the Supreme Court.
But as a next-gen civil rights leader, the 49-year-old — of Indian and African-American heritage — would really shine as U.S. attorney general. The AG plays a key role in racial justice, even when just affirming that the promise of equal treatment will be fulfilled. Think of Eric Holder in Ferguson on Wednesday, or Bobby Kennedy’s adamancy on desegregation.
There’s a caveat, though: Being AG means enforcing laws you don’t personally believe in. This week, Harris also announced that California would appeal a ruling that the death penalty is unconstitutional, though she says she doesn’t support it. Read more on Kamala in OZY.
Systemic problems like police brutality can’t be fixed only from the outside. You need people on the inside — in law enforcement — to reform institutions. That’s why Lupe Valdez, sheriff of Dallas County, is another pick. She may be the single most impressive person I’ve met in the past 20 years, including a couple of presidents.
She came from a background not that far off from Michael Brown’s — one of seven children of migrant workers, a C student, someone who barely made it to college. But she did make it there, and to grad school, and came to take a series of federal posts at places like the Drug Enforcement Agency and Homeland Security.
And then she gave it up, including her pension, to run for sheriff. She won. As a Latina, as a woman, as a lesbian — and against a 20-year incumbent in a conservative county. She’s really a luminary, as I found when I interviewed her back in 2007: She quotes and riffs on everyone from the Harvard Business Review to Gandhi. If anyone can make the impossible possible, Valdez can.
Speaking out against injustice is crucial civil rights work, but we also need people who can build and sustain solutions. That’s incredibly hard work, work that Geoff Canada took up for decades at the Harlem Children’s Zone. (You might know him from Waiting for Superman, the 2010 documentary.) The center committed to following the academic careers of kids in a 97-block area of Harlem, and it made a big difference, not just to those kids but to the community. Much of Harlem’s new renaissance — Red Rooster, Clinton’s headquarters — rests on the foundation of Canada’s work.
Canada knows the situation of kids born in the projects because he lived in them. He was a model kid who made it out of the Bronx. But his biography is key to his conviction that you can’t just fix schools — you have to address a whole bunch of intersecting issues that affect kids’ chances: jobs, security, health. He thinks holistically, kind of like Dr. King, who saw racial justice and economic justice as intimately linked.
Now that’s he’s stepped down from the Harlem Children’s Zone, he has a bunch of options. One is to replicate the Harlem model across the country, which is just what President Obama has sought to do — relying informally on Canada’s advice, too.
While professors are often dismissed as out of touch, every now and then they change our world, from Elizabeth Warren to, well, President Obama. Maybe it’s happening again. Here we have Roland Fryer, who over the course of his young life — he’s just 37 — went from full-fledged gangster to Harvard economics professor, tenured at 30. He got a MacArthur “genius grant” a couple of years ago.
And not content to stay ensconced in the ivory tower, he’s made another transformation — by taking over several dozen public schools in Houston and Dallas, with the approval of superintendents and teachers unions. He’s promised he can turn them into top performers within two years. In the first year, they saw significant gains in student performance, and other districts are beginning to pay attention.
The jury’s still out on whether Fryer’s experiment will work. It’s wonderfully ambitious, but if he can succeed there is reason to hope that America’s educational system can right itself. Read more on Roland in OZY.