With the Supreme Court expected to strike down a key piece of the Voting Rights Act later this year, now is a crucial moment for discussing Section 5's inarguable successes both in terms of civil rights and in improving the economic lives of Southern blacks.
Gavin Wright, a professor of American economic history at Stanford, has spent his career studying the economics of slavery, segregation, and the historical Southern economy. His recent book, Sharing the Prize, documents the economic impact that the civil rights acts of the mid-1960s had on Southerners, black and white.
Presentations of Wright’s work are available here and here, and a summary of his writings can be found here. While his book has some technical arguments, Wright’s ideas can be easily understood as a chronicle of the often overlooked economic consequences of the struggle for civil rights.
It’s difficult not to look at the large wealth and income disparities between blacks and whites today and conclude that the civil rights movement must have had a limited impact on the economic lives of most blacks. How would you qualify that argument?
Well, that is completely understandable and you could also point to poverty rates, home ownership rates, and many other measures. The disparities are very large and in fact if you look at national average income you might even find that it hasn’t changed that much from the 1960s. It’s not that I’m trying to say that the whole picture is much rosier than what people think. I’m saying more that if we can look at positive things that have happened and where they’ve happened and how, we might learn something from it.
Taking a regional approach, however, really does change the picture. When I talk with black people in the South they’re quite aware of how much difference the civil rights movement has made for those—it’s not everybody but it’s not a small minority either—who’ve been in a position to take advantage of it. They do worry that that phase is over, and widening income inequality over the past 40 or 50 years certainly hasn’t helped. So that’s something I’m not trying to deny.
But it still is true, even in the last decade—which has been a pretty bad one—that net black in-migration into the South has continued, and that opportunities are better there than elsewhere in the country.
What about the argument that things improved if you compare the economic condition of blacks right before the civil rights movement to right after?
That’s an argument I do make, and those gains really extended across the spectrum in terms of where things were as of 1960. I have a section in my book talking about the impact of desegregation of federally funded hospitals on the incidence of childhood mortality, and the changes were quite dramatic.
But at that time you could also point to blue collar jobs and say that the simple opening up of employment—which wasn’t due to just one piece of legislation, it took a lot of struggle to make it real—provided a sharp shift up in income prospects for black people in the South, mainly for those who had very limited education. So it’s perfectly true that that was a dramatic change in its day, although those kinds of jobs are much harder to find nowadays.
What about claims that changes from the civil rights movement were inevitable because businesses were moving toward integration?
I do dispute that, and I was quoted in James Stewart’s column in The New York Times on the fact that quite a few leading corporations are taking a proactive role on gay marriage and related issues. That did not happen in the case of civil rights. By and large, even with the national companies, even on the public accommodations issue, the first reaction of all them was to defer to their local managers by saying ‘We have to be sensitive to regional differences in culture,’ and the local managers all had the first reaction of, ‘Well, we’re going to resist this.’ Remember that in retrospect segregation looks easy to solve, but that’s only in retrospect, since it was the hot button issue of the 1960s. So I really view that as something that was by no means inevitable, as something that would not have happened without both local activism and legislation.
The same is true for unemployment. The Civil Rights Act was a triumphant measure in 1964. But to make that a reality in terms of actually getting corporations to change their ways, that required ongoing pressure for at least the next 15 or 20 years, and probably beyond that.
Why has there been a trend nationally back toward school segregation, even though integration was in many ways the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement?
Let me say that the schools chapter was the hardest one for me to write. Really the research and thinking I’d been doing up until then was mainly about public accommodations, labor markets, and voting rights, and I knew going in that there’s a much deeper sense of disappointment and disillusionment and even a certain amount of critique within the civil rights community, or their descendants, that this was a mistake, focusing on racial mixing or racial balance in schools.
But I, myself, am an old-time integrationist and I don’t think I’m going to change that. I think the evidence is strong, and those who have studied it largely concur, that having a diversified student body within schools has positive value educationally, in terms of the economic payoff, and certainly attitudinally.
It’s certainly a deep frustration to an old integrationist as to how things are going. The whole area of what we should do to improve our schools is so contentious and experts have such diverse views on it, that this is just one element in a very, very complex overall picture. I certainly don’t claim to have a brilliant solution.
You argue that gains from civil rights legislation for Southern blacks rarely, if ever, came at the expense of Southern whites. Was that allusion to Martin Luther King’s argument that oppression harms the oppressor as well as the oppressed purposeful?
I do mean to echo Martin Luther King’s kind of faith-based idea that everyone would benefit if segregation was ended, and you can find many white Southerners who would agree with that today. I did not intend that message to be a rigorous, cliometric (formal economic) conclusion. It’s not a claim about nature. In a capitalist market-economy technologies and industries are always coming and going, and lots of people are losing on this or that front. But I don’t think that was true in the case of the civil rights era.
Now, to some extent because it was a favorable time for the national economy and even more so for the Southern economy—when the national economy was stumbling in the 1970s much of the Southern economy was still pushing ahead—and regional growth put the South in a position to absorb the very large inflow of black workers who were kept out of many jobs prior to integration. You just can’t find a case where white wages were pushed down at the expense of black wages, and the same is true of black employment rates or black occupational status.
The tragic end to the story, however, is that with the stagnation of real wages in the national economy just about everywhere since the 1980s, both blacks and whites tend to blame the race issue for their economic troubles. Blacks think there are race-based limits on their opportunities and whites think that blacks are getting all the breaks when it comes to university admissions and things of that kind. There’s a sliver of truth in both of those perspectives, but the larger truth is that it’s the poor performance of the national economy when it comes to explaining stagnation at the lower end of the distribution.
With most experts expecting Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to be struck down by the Supreme Court in the coming months, can you talk about the future of the civil rights movement in the South?
It doesn’t look good for Section 5. It’s one of those things where almost from the start a piece of legislation was constitutionally innovative and now it may be due for a second look. What Justice Roberts suggested three years ago, that they really ought to rewrite or come up with a new Voting Rights Act that doesn’t use geographic indicators from the 1960s, is something he’s correct to argue.
But what the Court is being asked is whether they will take the relatively radical step of striking down legislation that has existed for decades, was renewed only recently after extensive hearings, and which has accomplished so much. I have no doubts about where my sympathies lie. But I would propose a test to determine whether this act is really needed or not: We should ask, ‘Do you have consensus in affected areas among the black as well as the white community that this kind of federal oversight is no longer needed?’ I doubt very much that those people would agree with what the Court is suggesting. And without that, how can they really say with any credibility, listening overwhelmingly to Southern whites in political power who never agreed that the VRA was ever needed in the first place, that Section 5 is no longer needed? It’s hard for me to see what makes that particular argument so persuasive.
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