Jesse Jackson is a fraud, and so is his “civil rights” cause.

It has come to light that the pious reverend has a mistress and an illegitimate 2-year-old daughter. This came as a shock to his wife and legitimate children, but it is the least of the reverend’s shortcomings.

Jesse has turned civil rights into a protection racket. In the old days, gangsters would call on a shopkeeper and offer him protection against damage to his store and trade. This seemed odd to the storekeeper at first, but after a brick visited his plate-glass window, he understood why he should pay protection.

Civil-rights leaders have mastered the art of the shakedown. They sell protection to corporations and politicians. In effect, civil-rights leaders tell corporations that in exchange for contributions, they won’t organize a boycott of the corporation’s products or bring a civil-rights lawsuit.

They tell politicians that in exchange for racial preferences and easy access to class-action lawsuits, they won’t call the politician a racist and organize a riot in his district.

Anyone who stands up to civil-rights leaders gets the brick through the window.

For the most part, civil-rights leaders have found corporations and politicians easy pushovers. Public corporations model themselves on Chamberlain at Munich; they are the least confrontational of institutions.

And politicians know that once Jesse has thrown his brick, they will never experience another press conference without a reporter asking if they beat their wife in addition to being a racist. Politicians know, too, that the powerful victims groups stick together. If blacks get on your case, the feminist, and homosexual lobbies won’t be far behind.

You have to hand it to civil-rights leaders. They have made a much better business out of the protection racket than the old Mafia did. The Mafia was hampered by the fact that their shakedowns were seen for what they were. But Jesse’s are seen as civil-rights enforcement.

The Mafiosi using muscle on the shopkeeper could, in principle, be arrested, indicted and imprisoned. But Jesse can put muscle on corporations and still be invited to White House dinners.

What brought about the merger of civil rights and gangsters? The answer is the good intentions and confusion of white people.

Americans believe in the Constitution, which requires equal rights for all. Most believe that it is impermissible to have one law for whites and a different law for blacks, one for the rich and another for the poor.

Although the Supreme Court ruled that separate was not the same as unequal, many whites saw segregation as inequality and organized to overturn segregation. Good intentions gave way to confusion when integrationists lost sight of the meaning of equality. When the dismantling of segregation first began, equality meant equality in law, but as the process unfolded it came to mean equality of result.

This changed the argument and the goal. Blacks couldn’t achieve equality of result, liberals claimed, unless they were given a preferred status to go to the head of the line in college admissions, employment, training programs, promotions and government contracts.

From this argument, it was reasoned that blacks were entitled to the same percentage of these opportunities as blacks comprised of the population. After these set-asides are granted on the basis of race, the opportunities that remain are open to competition.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, class warfare rhetoric, the welfare state and the redistributive, socialist leanings of many American liberals prepared the way for this transmogrification of equality in law into equality of result.

Within months of coming to power in 1933, Adolf Hitler promulgated a law that limited Jewish students’ access to institutions of higher learning to their percentage of the German population. Thanks to civil-rights leaders, we now have our own version of Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws. The American civil-rights movement no longer has anything to do with equality in law. The movement has become a lobby for racial privileges for “preferred minorities.”

Equality in law is one of mankind’s greatest achievements. It is the product of a thousand-year struggle of Western Civilization. The U.S. Department of Justice (sic), the corporate bastions of “white male hegemony” and the Democratic Party think so little of this achievement that they have forsaken it for law that favors some groups at the expense of others.

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Paul Craig Roberts

Paul Craig Roberts is the John M. Olin fellow at the Institute for Political Economy, research fellow at the Independent Institute and senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.