They wouldn't seem to have much in common, the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington and Miley Cyrus' disgraceful performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, but both show how culture trumps law in influencing our lives.
For those of us old enough to remember life before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the dream was that if we could outlaw discrimination on the basis of race and sex, the lives of blacks and women would be improved dramatically. And they were -- up to a point. As President Obama noted in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial, "To dismiss the magnitude of this progress -- to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed -- that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years."
The change the president referred to is real and significant. At the time that Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous speech in 1963, 22 percent of blacks in the Deep South were registered to vote and only five blacks held congressional office. Today, blacks vote in higher numbers than whites nationally (66 percent versus 64 percent of whites in the 2012 election), and there are more than 10,500 black elected officials nationwide, including more than 300 in legislatures south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Similar progress has occurred in education, employment and housing. Legal barriers to achieving the American dream have been lifted thanks to the passage of laws making it illegal to judge individuals by the color of their skin.
And the same is true for women. Young people today may not realize it, but in 1963 (prior to the implementation of the Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act), employers could bar women from certain jobs and pay them less for doing identical work. Universities could -- and did -- exclude or limit the number of women in certain fields. If a female teacher became pregnant, many school districts forced her to leave her job before what we now endearingly call the baby bump appeared.
But equal legal rights did not mean life became better and safer, much less elevated, for many blacks and women. And here is where culture stepped in to tarnish the dream.
For all the depredations of the pre-civil rights era, most black children were born into and grew up in homes with both a father and a mother. The leading cause of death for black teenage boys in the 1950s was not homicide at the hands of other black teenagers, as it is today. And although unemployment was higher among black males than whites, labor force participation rates (which measure whether one is looking for work or working) were not appreciably different, and black women were significantly more likely to be in the labor force than their white counterparts.
Culture -- not laws -- made the difference. The breakdown of the black family that occurred after the civil rights era is a product of American cultural shifts of the 1960s. The fact that the large majority of black children are born to single mothers today skews every outcome by which we measure progress in the black community: poverty, educational achievement, health, labor force participation, crime and wealth. The sexual revolution played a pernicious role, devaluing commitment and turning sex into a marketable commodity.
And that brings me to Miley Cyrus. Cyrus is a reflection of the commoditization of raw sex. Her lewd performance last week will pay off handsomely -- for MTV. The music video giant has suffered a ratings slump in recent years, which it has tried to solve by increasing the volume of sewage it dumps into the culture.
The 2012 VMA ratings were 50 percent lower than those of 2011, but Cyrus' performance made this year's show headline news for days. MTV will get richer off of the controversy, but our culture -- and the lives of young women and men -- will be the poorer. And it is culture as much as law that forms character.
Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream has been largely fulfilled. We now can be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. And that's the problem.
Linda Chavez is the author of "An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal." To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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