April 2013 Vol. 111 No. 6 THE REVIEW

Rights Lawyer Essentialism and the Next Generation of Rights Critics

Alan K. Chen

Richard Thompson Ford does not care much for the current state of civil rights. In his provocative new book, Rights Gone Wrong: How Law Corrupts the Struggle for Equality, Ford lends an original, if often misdirected, voice to the chorus of contemporary critics of the American legal regime of rights. Situating himself among "second generation" rights critics (p. 259), Ford lays out a comprehensive indictment of current approaches to civil rights litigation as well as civil rights activism. His work is both intriguing and provocative, and it raises a number of issues that are surely worth serious consideration and discussion. As I argue in this Review, however, while his goals are laudable, his project is ultimately unsuccessful.

Ford's critiques of the contemporary civil rights system can be broken down into three distinct, but related, themes. His first charge is that civil rights are an anachronism, a once powerful tool to address first-generation civil rights issues, but now outdated and not up to the task of tackling contemporary social problems. While some forms of racial and gender subordination remain serious issues, he argues that many of the fundamental battles for equality have been largely won. Ford claims that the civil rights system today has been captured, and to a large extent exploited, by self-indulgent individuals seeking to invoke the law (or in the case of activists, the moral high ground of civil rights) not to achieve justice, but to pursue their idiosyncratic, opportunistic desires for personal gain. On this account, civil rights have outlived their usefulness and accordingly need to be completely reconceived.

 

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