Race-Neutral Policies and the Democratic Coalition

The election of Ron Brown as the first black chairman of the Democratic National Committee triggered a new round of soul-searching among Democrats. Was the party committing political suicide by becoming too strongly identified with the aspirations of minority voters? Had America become so mired in racism that whites would desert the Democrats because blacks seemed to be running things?

My answer to these questions is an emphatic "No." Many white Americans have turned, not against blacks, but against a strategy that emphasizes programs perceived to benefit only racial minorities. In the 1990s the party needs to promote new policies to fight inequality that differ from court-ordered busing, affirmative action programs, and antidiscrimination lawsuits of the recent past. By stressing coalition politics and race-neutral programs such as full employment strategies, job skills training, comprehensive health care, reforms in the public schools, child care legislation, and prevention of crime and drug abuse, the Democrats can significantly strengthen their position. As Chairman Brown himself has emphasized, reinforcing Democratic loyalty among minorities and reaching out to reclaim white support are not mutually exclusive.

Such a change of emphasis is overdue. In the 1960s efforts to raise the public's awareness and conscience about the plight of black Americans helped to enact civil rights legislation and affirmative action programs. However, by the 1980s the civil rights strategy of dramatizing black disadvantage was backfiring. The "myth of black progress" theme, frequently invoked to reinforce arguments for stronger race-specific programs, played easily into the hands of conservative critics of antibias policies. The strategy reinforced the erroneous impression that federal antidiscrimination efforts had largely failed, and it overlooked the significance of complex racial changes since the mid-1960s. It also aroused concern that Democratic politicians' sensitivity to black complaints had come at the expense of the white majority.

The tortuous struggles of the 1960s produced real gains. To deny those achievements only invites demoralization among both black and white advocates of racial justice. Yet the movement for racial equality needs a new political strategy for the 1990s that appeals to a broader coalition and addresses many problems afflicting minorities that originated in racist practices but will not be solved by race-specific remedies.

Differential Rates of Black Progress
As we entered the 1980s, the accomplishments of the civil rights struggle were clearly registered in the rising number of blacks in professional, technical, managerial, and administrative positions. Progress was evident also in the increasing enrollment of blacks in colleges and universities and the growing number of black homeowners. These increases were proportionately greater than those for whites. On the other hand, among the disadvantaged segments of the black population, especially the ghetto underclass, many dire problems -- poverty, joblessness, family breakup, educational retardation in inner-city public schools, increased welfare dependence, and drug addiction -- were getting even worse.

The differential rates of progress in the black community persisted through the 1980s. Family incomes among the poorest of the poor reveal the pattern. From 1978 to 1987, the number of blacks with incomes under half the poverty line (below $4,528 for a three-person family in 1987, adjusting for inflation) increased by 69 percent. In 1978 only one of every three poor blacks fell below half the poverty line, but by 1987 the proportion rose to 45 percent. The average poor black family in 1986 and 1987 slipped further below the poverty level than in any year since the Census Bureau started collecting such data in 1967. While the average income of the lowest fifth of black families in the United States was dropping 24 percent, the average income of the highest fifth of black families was climbing by more than $3,000 and that of the top five percent by almost $9,000. Upper-income whites are considerably wealthier than upper-income blacks, but in 1987 the highest fifth of black families secured a record 47.4 percent of the total black income, compared to the 42.9 percent share of total white family income received by the highest fifth of white families.

So while income inequality widened generally in America during the 1980s, it widened even more dramatically among black Americans. If we are to fashion remedies for black poverty, we need to understand the origins and dynamics of inequality in the black community. Without disavowing the accomplishments of the civil rights movement, black leaders and liberal policy makers now need to focus on remedies that will make a difference to the poor.

Progress and Protest
Before the emergence of activist black protest, the professionals of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), working mainly through the courts, achieved important victories in the drive for civil rights. Prior to 1960, the NAACP publicly defined the racial problem as legal segregation in the South and set as its major goal the end of all state-enforced segregation -- as the civil rights slogan then had it, "free by 1963." In landmark Supreme Court decisions, the NAACP won legal mandates to improve the conditions of black Americans. Most important, of course, was the 1954 Supreme Court ruling against mandatory school segregation, which overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine and authoritatively defined blacks as first class citizens.

Important and necessary as these victories were, it soon became apparent that they were not sufficient. Jim Crow regimes in the South ingeniously circumvented the new rulings and made it apparent to black leaders that they had defined both the problem and the goal too narrowly. The problem, as they now saw it, was token compliance with the newly created mandates; the goal they now set was the end of both de jure and de facto segregation.

Despite Southern white resistance, black expectations of continued racial progress continued rising. Not only had the Supreme Court ruled in favor of desegregation; the federal government was growing more sensitive to the condition of black America for two reasons.

The first was international. When the new African regimes broke up the old colonial empires, both the West and the Soviet bloc began competing for influence in the new states. Racial violence and animosities in the United States were now more embarrassing to federal officials than in the past. As a result, Southerners, who had enjoyed significant autonomy in handling racial matters prior to World War 11, came under closer national scrutiny

The increased voting power of blacks in national elections was also a factor. Since the elections of the 1920s, civil rights advocates had monitored the voting records of congressmen and policies of presidents. The lure of the black vote sometimes prompted politicians to support racial equality, as did the Democratic and Progressive candidates of 1928. At other times, politicians granted token concessions in the hope of preserving or gaining black support, as did President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 when he increased black participation in the Armed Forces, though still within segregated units.

As early as the forties, the black vote was substantial enough in pivotal Northern states to decide close national elections. In 1948 President Truman recognized that to defeat his favored Republican opponent, Thomas E. Dewey, he needed strong black support. For the first time since Reconstruction, the status of blacks emerged as a central presidential campaign issue. Much to the chagrin of its Southern members, the Democratic Party adopted a civil rights plank as part of its 1948 platform. That same year, satisfying a demand black leaders introduced eight years earlier, President Truman issued an executive order banning racial segregation in the armed forces. Despite a Dixiecrat walkout from the party, the strategy worked: black voters helped Truman narrowly defeat Dewey. The black vote also provided the margin of victory for Kennedy in 1960, and it almost defeated Nixon again in 1968.

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In the 1960s, as blacks increased their political resources, white resistance to complete desegregation intensified and black support for protest action mushroomed. For a brief period, the nonviolent resistance strategy proved highly effective, particularly in forcing local governments and private agencies to integrate facilities in Southern cities and towns. The nonviolent demonstrations also pressed the federal government into passage of civil rights legislation in 1964 and voting rights legislation in 1965.

Nonviolent protest was successful for several reasons. The demands accompanying the protests -- for example, "end discrimination in voting" -- tended to be fairly specific and hard to oppose in principle. The remedies were also relatively straightforward and did not require immediate sacrifices by most whites, which reduced white political backlash in areas outside the South. Federal officials were receptive not only because they saw the international attention these developments were receiving. They recognized the political resources blacks had developed, including the growing army of Northern whites sympathetic to the civil rights movement and to direct action protests.

The demands of the civil rights movement reflected a general assumption by black leaders in the 1960s that the government could best protect the rights of minority groups not by formally bestowing rewards and punishments based on group membership, but by using antidiscrimination measures to enhance individual freedom. The movement was particularly concerned about access to education, employment, voting, and public accommodations. So from the 1950s to 1970, the emphasis was on freedom of choice; the role of the state was to prevent the formal categorization of people on the basis of race. Antibias legislation was designed to eliminate racial discrimination without considering the proportion of minorities in certain positions. The underlying principle was that individual merit should be the sole determining factor in choosing among candidates for positions. Because civil rights protests clearly upheld this basic American principle, they carried a degree of moral authority that leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. repeatedly and effectively invoked.

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It would have been ideal if programs based on the principle of freedom of individual opportunity were sufficient to remedy racial inequality. Long periods of racial oppression can result, however, in a system of inequality that lingers even after racial barriers come down. The most disadvantaged minority individuals, crippled by the cumulative effects of both race and class subjugation, disproportionately lack the resources to compete effectively in a free and open market. Conversely, the members of a minority group who stand to benefit most from the removal of racial barriers are the ones who least need extra help.

Eliminating racial barriers creates the greatest opportunities for the better trained, talented, and educated members of minority groups because they possess the most resources to compete. Those resources reflect a variety of advantages -- family stability, financial means, peer groups, and schooling provided or made possible by their parents.

By the late 1960s a number of black leaders began to recognize this dilemma. In November, 1967, for example, Kenneth B. Clark said, "The masses of Negroes are now starkly aware of the fact that recent civil rights victories benefited a very small percentage of middle-class Negroes while their predicament remained the same or worsened." Simply eliminating racial barriers was not going to be enough. As the late black economist Vivian Henderson put it in the NAACP journal The Crisis, "If all racial prejudice and discrimination and all racism were erased today, all the ills brought by the process of economic class distinction and economic depression of the masses of black people would remain."

Accordingly, black leaders and liberal policy makers began to emphasize the need not only to eliminate active discrimination, but also to counteract the effects of past racial oppression. Instead of seeking remedies only for individual complaints of discrimination, they sought government-mandated affirmative action programs to ensure adequate minority representation in employment, education, and public programs.

However, as the political scientist James Fishkin has argued, if the more advantaged members of minority groups benefit disproportionately from policies that embody the principle of equality of individual opportunity, they also profit disproportionately from policies of preferential treatment based solely on their racial group membership. Why? Again simply because minority individuals from the most advantaged families tend to be disproportionately represented among those of their racial group most qualified for preferred status, such as college admissions, higher paying jobs, and promotions. Thus policies of preferential treatment are likely to improve further the socioeconomic positions of the more advantaged without adequately remedying the problems of the disadvantaged.

To be sure, affirmative action was not intended solely to benefit the more advantaged minority individuals. As William L. Taylor, the former director of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, has stated, "The focus of much of the [affirmative action] effort has been not just on white collar jobs, but also on law enforcement, construction work, and craft and production in large companies -- all areas in which the extension of new opportunities has provided upward mobility for less advantaged minority workers." Taylor also notes that studies show that many minority students entering medical schools during the 1970s were from families of low income.

Affirmative action policies, however, did not really open up broad avenues of upward mobility for the masses of disadvantaged blacks. Like other forms of "creaming," they provided opportunities for those individuals from low socioeconomic background with the greatest educational and social resources. Recent data on income, employment opportunities, and educational attainment confirm that relatively few individuals who reside in the inner-city ghettos have benefited from affirmative action.

During the past two decades, as I have argued previously in The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), urban minorities have been highly vulnerable to structural changes in the economy, such as the shift from goods-producing to service-producing industries, the increasing polarization of the labor market into low-wage and highwage sectors, innovations in technology, and the relocation of manufacturing industries out of the central city These shifts have led to sharp increases in joblessness and the related problems of highly concentrated poverty, welfare dependency, and family breakup, despite the passage of antidiscrimination legislation and the creation of affirmative action programs. In 1974, for example, 47 percent of all employed black males ages 20 to 24 held blue-collar, semiskilled operative and skilled-craft positions, which typically earned wages adequate to support a family. By 1986 that figure plummeted to 25 percent. A survey I have directed, randomly sampling residents from poor Chicago neighborhoods, revealed that Puerto Rican men up to age 45 and black men under age 36 have borne the brunt of job losses due to deindustrialization.

However, I do not advance the foregoing arguments to suggest that race specific programs were inefficacious. They clearly helped to bring about a sharp increase in the number of blacks entering higher education and gaining professional and managerial positions. But neither policies based on the principle of equality of individual opportunity, nor policies that call for preferential group treatment, such as affirmative action, will do much for less advantaged blacks because of the combined effects of past discrimination and current structural changes in the economy. Now more than ever, we need broader solutions than those we have employed in the past.

Toward a New Political Strategy
Full employment policies, job skills training, comprehensive health care legislation, educational reforms in the public schools, child care legislation, and crime and drug abuse prevention programs -- these are the race-neutral policies likely to begin making a difference for the poor, black and white.

When presenting this argument to academic audiences, I am frequently told that such programs would face general opposition not only because of their cost, but also because many whites have become disenchanted with the black movement and its calls for intensified affirmative action.

These programs should be presented, however, not as ways to address the plight of poor minorities (though they would greatly benefit from them), but as strategies to help all groups, regardless of race or economic class. After all, Americans across racial and class lines continue to be concerned about unemployment and job security, declining real wages, escalating medical costs, the sharp decline in the quality of public education, the lack of good child care, and crime and drug trafficking in their neighborhoods.

Public opinion surveys reflect these concerns. For the last several years national opinion polls consistently reveal strong public backing for government labor market strategies, including training efforts to enhance employment. A 1988 Harris poll indicated that almost three-quarters of the respondents would support a tax increase to pay for child care. A 1989 Harris poll reports that almost nine out of ten Americans would like to see fundamental change in the U.S. health care system. And recent surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago reveal that a substantial majority of Americans want more money spent to improve the nation's schools and to halt rising crime and drug addiction.

Programs that expand employment opportunities and job skills training, improve public education, provide adequate child and health care, and reduce neighborhood crime and drug abuse could alleviate many problems of poor minorities that cannot be successfully attacked by race-specific measures alone. In the 1990s the best political strategy for those committed to racial justice is to promote these programs for all groups in America, not just minorities.

Race-Neutral Programs and Coalition Politics
"The economic future of blacks in the United States," Vivian Henderson argued in 1975, "is bound up with that of the rest of the nation. Policies, programs, and politics designed in the future to cope with the problems of the poor and victimized will also yield benefits to blacks. In contrast, any efforts to treat blacks separately from the rest of the nation are likely to lead to frustration, heightened racial animosities, and a waste of the country's resources and the precious resources of black people."

Henderson's warning seems to be especially appropriate in periods of economic stagnation, when public support of programs targeted for minorities -- or associated with real or imagined material sacrifice on the part of whites -- seems to wane. The economy was strong when affirmative action programs were introduced during the Johnson administration. When the economy turned down in the 1970s, the public's view of affirmative action turned increasingly sour.

Furthermore, as Joseph A. Califano, Johnson's staff assistant for domestic affairs, observed in 1988, such programs were generally acceptable to whites "only as a temporary expedient to speed blacks' entry into the social and economic mainstream." But as years passed, many whites "saw continuing such preferences as an unjust insistence by Democrats that they do penance for an era of slavery and discrimination they had nothing to do with." They also associated the decline in public schools, not with broader changes in society, but with "forced integration."

The Democrats also came under fire for their support of Great Society programs that increasingly and incorrectly acquired the stigma of being intended for poor blacks alone. Virtually separate medical and legal systems developed in many cities. Public services became identified mainly with blacks, private services mainly with whites. In an era of ostensible racial justice, many public programs ironically seemed to develop into a new and costlier form of segregation. White taxpayers saw themselves as being forced to pay for medical and legal services for minorities that many of them could not afford to purchase for their own families.

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From the New Deal to the 1960s, the Democrats were able to link Keynesian economics and middleclass prosperity with programs for integrating racial minorities and the poor into the American mainstream. "In periods of great economic progress when [the incomes of the middle classes] are rising rapidly," argues Lester Thurow, "they are willing to share some of their income and jobs with those less fortunate than themselves, but they are not willing to reduce their real standard of living to help either minorities or the poor."

As the economic situation worsened, Ronald Reagan was able to convince many working- and middle-class Americans that the decline in their living standards was attributable to expensive and wasteful programs for the poor (and implicitly for minorities). When Reagan was elected to office in 1980, the New Deal coalition collapsed; the principal groups supporting the Democratic ticket with wide majorities were blacks, Hispanics, and the poor, who represent only a quarter of the American population.

What are the implications for the Democratic party? After losing three straight presidential elections, the Democrats are reexamining their programs and approaches to voters, partly in the hope of recapturing support from disaffected whites who voted for Reagan and Bush. Those steps ought to involve the development of race-neutral programs. Consider, for example, one issue likely to be at the core of new domestic programs -- the future of the American workforce.

Social scientists, corporate leaders, and government officials have all expressed concerns about the potential weakening of America's competitive position if we fail to confront the growing shortage of skilled workers. These concerns have led to a heightened awareness of the consequences of poverty, poor education, and joblessness. Many of the new jobs will require higher levels of training and education at the very time when our public schools are graduating too many students who can barely read or write. The 1987 U.S. Department of Labor Study, "Workforce 2000," pointed out that for demographic reasons members of minority groups will necessarily fill a majority of the new jobs in the next decade.

A major policy initiative to improve the quality of the work force would open up opportunities for the minorities who are heavily represented among the educational have-nots. But such an initiative would also open opportunities for others, and it should draw general support because of concerns over the devastating effects a poorly trained work force will have on the entire economy.

Non-Racial Affirmative Action
However, even if minorities would benefit disproportionately from new race-neutral initiatives to combat the problems and consequences of social inequality, are there not severe problems in the inner-city ghetto that can only be effectively addressed by creative programs targeted on the basis of race? For example, Roger Wilkins has argued persuasively that the cumulative effects of racial isolation and subjugation have made the plight of the black poor unique. Many inner-city children have a solo parent and lack educational support and stability in their home; Wilkins contends that they need assistance to enable them to become capable adults who can provide their children with emotional and educational support. Accordingly, he maintains that special social service programs are needed for inner-city (presumably, minority) schools.

No serious initiative to improve the quality of the workforce could ignore problems such as poverty, social isolation, and family instability, which impede the formal education of children and ultimately affect their job performance. Service programs to meet these needs could easily fit into an overall race-neutral initiative to improve America's work force. To be sure, this component of the larger initiative would be introduced only in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, but the neighborhoods would not have to be racially defined. Poor minorities need not be treated separately from the rest of the nation in a national effort to enhance the skill levels of the labor force.

It is particularly important for blacks and other minorities to recognize that they have a stake in the formation of a Democratic coalition that would develop race-neutral initiatives. Only with multiracial support could programs of social and economic reform get approved in Congress. Black voters who are dubious about this approach ought to be reminded of the success of the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign. By highlighting problems plaguing all groups in America, the Jackson campaign drew far more support from white working- and middleclass voters than most political observers thought possible.

The Positive Effects of Race-Neutral Policies
My emphasis on race-neutral programs should be clearly distinguished from the neo-conservative critique of affirmative action that attacks both racial preference and activist social welfare policies. The former is said to be antidemocratic, the latter economically counterproductive to minorities. My approach, in contrast, supports the alliance between activist government and racial justice in three key respects -- as guarantor of civil rights, as custodian of coalition politics, and as sponsor of race-neutral strategies that advance the well-being of America's neediest along with that of America as a whole. For those who came of age in the 1970s, it seems paradoxical that this goal is now best achieved via race-neutral approaches. Yet, a society without racial preference has, of course, always been the long-term goal of the civil rights movement.

An emphasis on coalition politics that features progressive, race-neutral policies could have two positive effects. It could help the Democratic Party regain lost political support, and it could lead to programs that would especially benefit the more disadvantaged members of minority groups -- without being minority policies.

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